Mike Dunn: Tom Draper worked to bring us together

As word began to spread last week that Tom Draper, the owner of WBOC, had been seriously injured doing what he loved to do — taking an early morning bike ride along the back roads in his beloved Sussex County, not far from his home — disbelief set in, all over Delmarva. When, less than 24 hours later, word came that Tom Draper had died from his injuries, a sadness settled into this region the likes of which I’ve never seen before.

Tom Draper, a man in full, a broadcasting pioneer, a philanthropist of the highest order, a fearless entrepreneur, an innovator who dared to dream big, a leader who inspired anyone who knew him, a staunch, hard core, active Republican, and — most importantly of all — a father, grandfather, brother and friend to so many, was gone. He was 76 years young.

Tom Draper was one of my life heroes. It’s as simple as that. My path crossed his more than 30 years ago when I was hired as a reporter at WBOC. Getting to know Tom on a personal level remains one of the great privileges of my life. To this day, on my home phone, there is a saved voicemail message that Tom sent me … in 2008! He was calling from the beach, his late fiancé Barbara Long at his side, because he was reviewing the RSVP’s for the Grand Opening of his spectacular WBOC Newsplex that was (then) upcoming, and he’d seen that our invitation had been sent to an old address. So he called to “personally extend to you and Karen” an invitation to join in the festivities.

I know it sounds silly to have saved such a simple message. (I assure you, Tom would say the same thing!) But I don’t care. The man meant the world to me. And saving a call inviting me to his grandest broadcasting endeavor to date? Well, it seemed like the right thing to do. And, it still does.

As mentioned, Tom was a staunch Republican. I dare say that he’s never been more than a phone call away from any Republican president since the 1980s. It’s no surprise to learn, then, that our friendship began over politics. But, not, perhaps in the way you’d think. You see, I was a Democrat. My great-grandfather had been in Congress during FDR’s time in the White House, representing a district in Philadelphia. He’d helped co-author the Social Security Act of 1935. When I shared that fact with Tom, at one of the many off-hour newsroom gatherings we’d all attend back in those heady, early days at WBOC, he and I were off and running.

Trying to stand toe-to-toe with Tom Draper, Ivy League educated (at Brown University) as he was, was no easy trick. But, I think I did it. The discussions he and I had — coming from different perspectives, clearly – laid the framework for our relationship. Years later, in 2004, I got a call from Tom. At the time, I was the recently elected City Council President of Salisbury. The first words out of his mouth during that conversation? Not a standard greeting by any stretch. Tom, instead of saying hello, said something along the lines of: “I know you have this ‘big new job’…but you’re still a Democrat, and you’re still wrong.” He said it laughingly, and I received it that way. Getting serious, he then told me how proud he was. If I’ve saved a voicemail from the man for nine years, you can imagine what hearing those words meant to me.

A few years ago, I became an “unaffiliated” voter. Basically, an independent. When last I saw Tom, I’d shared that news. He congratulated me and said, with a smile, “You’re almost there.”

And now Tom, sadly, tragically, unimaginably, is no longer here. He built what is arguably the best small market TV station in the United States. He changed the landscape of Delmarva — understanding, instinctively, that Dover and Salisbury and Cambridge and Easton and Rehoboth and Milford are ALL linked. That, together, we have much more in common than we do apart. He lived his life, and dedicated his professional life, to proving that.  

Mike Dunn, a Salisbury native, is President & CEO of the Greater Salisbury Committee.



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