Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Farewell to Tom Richardson, founder of Conversation Tees

Tom Richardson, right, and Rob Frohlking founded a T-shirt company in Raleigh while both of them were homeless. Each shirt featured a single word designed to start conversations between strangers. Tom died last week at age 50.
Tom Richardson, right, and Rob Frohlking founded a T-shirt company in Raleigh while both of them were homeless. Each shirt featured a single word designed to start conversations between strangers. Tom died last week at age 50. Josh Shaffer

For more than a year, Tom Richardson walked Raleigh’s streets as a man who’d lost everything: his marriage, his job, a roof to keep him dry. Homeless at age 50, a prisoner of both addiction and depression, he felt, in his own words, like a low-life.

Then he found a net at the bottom of his hole, a reminder that life is built of second, third and fourth chances. At the Healing Place, a shelter off Lake Wheeler Road, he met Rob Frohlking – also homeless, a dreadlock-wearing street musician who sometimes slept in a bush.

Together, the two started a T-shirt company with scraps of cash and know-how they gathered around Raleigh, printing shirts that featured a single word above the chest. Really, said one of them. Exactly, said another. Obviously, said a third.

Their idea: People would see these shirts and ask questions. Exactly what? Obviously how? Those questions would lead to conversations. And those conversations would lead to caring, whether you slept in a four-poster bed or a bunk in a shelter.

I met Tom last summer and saw a man excited to be alive. He told me, “We have business cards and everything.” I wish I could tell you that his grand idea had sparked such a renewal that he gained everything back. But I can’t. Tom died last week in his Raleigh apartment. The reasons aren’t clear yet, but he went to sleep and didn’t wake up.

I can tell you, however, that he died a rich man. More than 100 friends poured into Edenton Street United Methodist Church for his funeral Friday, and at least half of them came wearing Tom and Rob’s shirts. I wore one myself. Obviously.

“Tom did believe that one word could lead to new life,” said Will McLeane, his pastor there. “Tom was right. Indeed, Tom was right.”

He came from Pennsylvania originally, and his love for the Pittsburgh Steelers often surged to the level of screaming at the television. But he came to North Carolina as a young man, graduating from high school in Henderson, then college at East Carolina University. To hear him tell it, he enjoyed a comfortable life complete with a good-paying job and a two-car garage.

He didn’t reveal much when I asked about how he lost them. A close friend died. His marriage fell apart. He made bad decisions. He stopped caring. If you’ve ever seen depression close up, you know it’s not something people can shake off like a bad cold.

But I think Tom had an unusual amount of light inside of him, even for somebody who spent so much time in dark places. He helped collect coats for the Oak City Outreach Center. Only a few weeks before his death, he volunteered to help weather-proof the windows at New Bern House, an assisted living community.

“He really wanted to go,” said Stefan Youngblood, Tom’s onetime worship leader at Edenton Street. “The beautiful thing for me is that he was still a work in progress. He didn’t know any of those people.”

More than any of this, he found ways to connect with people, especially last July 4, when he and Frohlking sold shirts on Fayetteville Street and found their way onto TV news.

“He was my best friend,” said Frohlking. “I knew him as this silly guy. Watching him dance to ’70s music, ‘Car Wash’ and that ‘Freak Out’ song. Watching him play guitar, or try to. Vending, and being a part of Raleigh, when we were on Fayetteville Street on July 4. That was the coolest ever.”

I was fortunate enough to get invited onstage Friday to help play a song with Rob and Stefan and Aaron Keith, a guitarist you might want to check out at Common 414 on Wednesday. But the most touching moment for me came when McLeane addressed Tom’s son in the audience. “He was so so so so so so happy that you were proud of him.” That sentence carried more history, weight and pain than I can imagine.

Then as he finished his homily, McLeane offered this reassurance to everyone missing Tom, friends from college to the streets: God has clothed him in a new shirt, decorated with one word.

Beloved.

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