Bridgton loses historical voice with Tom Gyger’s passing

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

When longtime friend Jon Evans was asked to describe Tom Gyger, he called him “an open book, that sometimes was hard to read.”

“A complex man, very caring, completely devoted to his family and community,” he added. “Always deep in thought, I wondered how he ever slept! We did not always agree, but that was not important to us, having the healthy dialogue was paramount.”

Tom always had a story to tell, whether it regarded his passion — growing apples and maintaining the sprawling 216-acre farm, Five Fields Farm in South Bridgton — or any number of topics, especially history. The length of any in-depth conversation depended upon how much time one had to listen.

Tom liked to talk, for sure.

“People would be standing with money in their hands to buy apples, but Dad would continue on and on with his story,” said son, David. “He had a wealth of knowledge about a lot of things. He was a constant learner.”

John Thomas Gyger III passed away unexpectedly last Wednesday night, July 4, due to a medical event. He was 70.

He left a legacy that included being a steward of a family apple orchard operation, which started in the 1920s when his father, John, purchased the property, as well as conservationist, historian and ski enthusiast, which landed the longtime ski patrol member into the Maine Ski Hall of Fame.

Five Fields Farm was his love. It was a natural name for the Route 107 orchard, since five fields were planted as orchards. Tom and his wife, June, took over the day-to-day operation of the orchard in the mid 1980s. If he was not out spraying or moving irrigation pipes, Tom acted like the Pied Piper, leading youngsters, teachers and parents through the orchard, talking about the life cycle of an apple and the history of the farm.

“Tours, that was his thing,” June said. “Tom loved to share the things he knew. He was a voracious reader. When he was growing up, he’d take an encyclopedia to bed with him. Always reading.”

His range of knowledge was on full display at the Magic Lantern’s Tannery Pub on Trivia Night. Always analytical, Tom would instruct his fellow teammates to “work their way” to an answer.

His mind, family said, was always engaged — analyzing, visualizing (often drawing things out on whatever piece of paper was available at the moment) or absorbing new information.

Life on the Farm

Tom always strived to be a strong steward of the farm.

Jon Evans, who is stewardship manager for Loon Echo Land Trust, went to work for the Gygers in 1985 — a time of transition at Five Fields Farm.

“Mr. John Gyger was turning over the day-to-day operations to Tom and June. I felt the burden on Tom’s shoulders some days and wondered why he left the certainty of teaching for the uncertainties of farming. Early on, I realized his passion for sharing knowledge and how he wove that into the fabric of the farm. I remember one day watching him weld steel, a skill that is required on every farm. Before I could tell him how cool I thought it was that he was fixing this old equipment, he was fitting me for the welding helmet and within minutes, he had me melting steel,” Evans recalled. “On another occasion, there was an old Chrysler engine that had been converted to an irrigation pump that I just seemed to move from one overgrown area to another, never understanding why we had it around. One morning after having half of my clothing ripped off by blackberry bushes, I said to Tom, ‘Why must we trip over this thing, it probably doesn’t even run.’ Tom said, ‘Bring it in the barn.’ He asked my knowledge of gasoline combustion engines and I confessed I had a lot to learn. We spent the winter months when not packing fruit, slowly taking this seized engine apart piece by piece — I could not wait to get to work to continue the project. Finally, it was time to reassemble this contraption. Tom said we have spark, fuel, air, it should start. With a deafening great roar, it came to life, filling the barn with blue smoke, acorns and other nesting materials. We laughed like hell, sharing in this moment of bliss.”

Tom hired a variety of folks over the years, some with various battles.

“He saw the value in everyone and treated everyone with the same amount of dignity. I always admired that,” Evans said.

Fast forward 20 years and Evans is now employed by Loon Echo Land Trust, managing their fee-owned conservation lands, including Bald Pate Mountain Preserve, which shares a boundary with Five Fields Farm, also permanently conserved. The Gygers were given permission to expand their ski operation onto the Preserve years ago and a new relationship with Tom began.

“We both had gained weight and grayed, but nothing else had changed. Recently, I recruited him onto the Board of the Bridgton Historical Society and we shared the same passion for Narramissic. We spoke on the phone at least two or three times a week on a range of topics. I will miss our engaging conversations...two dudes that can really talk,” Evans added. “Tom was incredibly unselfish with his time and invested countless hours into nonprofits and events that made our community better. I also recall he donated white blood cells on a regular basis through a process called apheresis which took hours.”

Evans’ father just passed away a few months before he went to work at the farm in 1985. “I will always be grateful for his (Tom’s) patience, kindness and friendship and wish I had told him how much I appreciated him. We will chat again someday, and we will pick up where we left off,” he said.

A little surprising tidbit

Renowned chefs like to taste their latest creations.

Apple growers, one would think, would occasionally take a bite of the latest fruit crop.

Not Tom Gyger.

“I think most people would be surprised that Dad didn’t like apples right from the tree. He didn’t like raw apples. He would eat apple pies and applesauce, but not a raw apple. He would ask Mom to take a bite and tell him what she thought,” David said. “I guess it was the apple’s texture he didn’t like.”

Imagine, a guy would didn’t like taking a large bite out of a shiny, red apple yet running an orchard? David can. He doesn’t play hockey and probably never will, but he operates an ice arena.

Tom had a passion for mowing. He liked to experiment, including developing a “Gyger Mac,” which appears ready for sampling for the first time.

Workers marveled at his patience. Regardless of the situation, Tom always remained calm.

“Cool, calm and collected,” June said. “Nothing rattled him.”

Those same traits can in handy in his work as a ski patrol member. Tom considered time on the slopes a moment of freedom, something he was eager for others to experience, including his two sons, David and Dan, who both went on to be accomplished high school alpine racers. Dan continues that connection with Shawnee Peak, a place he spent hundreds of hours as a youngster and teen, employed at the resort. June was a familiar face in the race booth, tracking times of racers and announcing their finishes. It was a family affair, which lasted decades.

Tom cared about his community. He joined Paul Field in bringing the Mushers Bowl to the South Bridgton farm after several races had to be canceled due to poor conditions on local lakes.

On trips to North Conway, Tom would make a stop at Harvest Hills Animal Shelter to make a contribution, David said.

What’s next?

While the family grieves the loss of their beloved husband and father, the Gygers plan to keep the farm rolling through the fall. Relying on some experienced hands, the fruit stand will be open, as well as the pick-your-own operation.

As for the future, right now “it’s up in the air,” the family said.

Quite a Life

Jennilee Sirois, the Ski Patrol director at Shawnee Peak, posted the following on the resort’s website with the unexpected passing of Tom Gyger on July 4:

It is with great sadness we share the news that Tom Gyger passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on July 4th. Tom has long been a prominent member of the Shawnee Peak Family and he will be missed.

Tom’s professional achievements included:

  • Tom was an instrumental member of the Ski Patrol family, a member for 50 years (1967 – present). Tom first joined Pats Peak Ski patrol in 1967 before moving to Maine in 1979. He and his wife June were the driving factors behind Shawnee Peak’s volunteer patrol for many years, Tom having been the Volunteer Patrol Director.
  • Over the years Tom has been an instructor, developer, senior program director, Maine Region Medical advisor, Maine Region Awards advisor, Eastern Division Junior program advisor and OEC course instructor.
  • Tom received a National Appointment number (#5922) in 1981, was inducted into the Maine Ski Hall of Fame in 2014. He was awarded a distinguished service award and most recently received a 50-year patroller achievement award.
  • Tom impressively volunteered probably thousands of hours of his time while holding all of these positions, and simultaneously ran an apple orchard and cross-country ski center (Five Fields Farm).
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