Tom Petty died today, aged 66. I won’t claim to be a huge Tom Petty fan, but I’ve bought an album or two and sang along in the car to one of those songs everyone knows. I’ll stream a lot of his catalog today to remember the songs I’ve heard once or hundreds of times.
I also owe Petty credit for a singular moment in my life, and one I never expected to last in my mind.
Nearly 20 years ago, I was a fresh-ish faced transplant to Ann Arbor, MI by way of my first “real job” out of college, working for a software company in Dexter. I was renting a house with some other folks who’d also been displaced as a result of a fire at my first apartment. I was the only family member East of Lansing, which made me a contact point for anyone going through Detroit Metro airport.
Which is how my uncle Dean came to spend a few hours with me one evening. At the time, my grandparents (his parents) were wintering in Texas. My grandfather had health problems most of his life and this trip was no different. This bout felt important enough that Dean wanted to fly down and spend some time with them. Dean himself had some pretty bad health issues as well, which meant he needed some help traveling. I got a call from my mom asking if I could take him to the airport, carry some luggage, make sure he got on the plane, that kind of thing.
Dean and I had never had much of a relationship. He was a strange guy to me and my brother growing up: a former-ish hippie, been in some trouble in the past, poor even by our family’s standards. He was uncomfortable in a way I now recognize as a reflection of many of the things I was escaping by moving away from my hometown. I can’t say I was thrilled to take on the obligation, but he was family and I couldn’t not help him get to see his parents in a moment that felt important.
So, on a chilly evening in Ann Arbor, we sat at my kitchen table, trying to make small talk for a few hours before we made our way to the airport. We really didn’t have much to talk about, even less in common, and it was an awkward setting. I don’t remember now how it came up, but the topic turned to music. And then Tom Petty. I probably had a CD or something laying around (Case Logic cases!). He lit up and started peppering me with questions about why I had an album, did I follow Petty much. I seem to recall having a fairly good handle on Petty’s situation, both professionally and personally, and we started talking about tangential things that had happened in Dean’s life. Some of the struggles he’d had. Some of his regrets.
And for the first time in my life, my uncle was a real person, who’d dreamed and failed and tried again and again, mostly for naught, but always finding a reason to try again. Dean found a spirit in Petty’s music that I hadn’t seen that gave him energy. He even looked a little like Petty, with that wispy, dirty, blonde hair and southern-styled belt buckle.
We talked like that all the way to DTW, up to the gate (remember when you could do that?). I shook his hand as he headed for the plane with genuine respect and wished him well.
I saw him a few times after that, but with the distance between our living locations and situations, it wasn’t more than a handful of passing encounters over the next few years. Dean died a few years ago and we never shared another moment like that.
I wish all the comfort and peace for Petty’s family. Losing someone so singular and special must be a life-defining moment. And I thank Tom for giving a twenty-ish kid and his world-weary uncle a point in time where music and a personality created a brief but lasting moment. I suspect Tom Petty’s legacy is full of many such moments. The world is a less special place with him gone.