Thomas E. Eldridge, Boulder restaurateur and civic leader, died at Frasier Meadows Retirement Community on Sunday morning. He was 69.
"It goes without saying that Tom was a Boulder icon."
Eldridge started out in the tavern business in 1959 at age 21, when he bought the Friendly Tavern at 1103 Pearl St. Now a Billabong store, it was across 11th Street from what would become Tom's Tavern.
Friendly Tavern didn't always live up to its name, Eldridge's son Daniel said Monday at Tom's Tavern, where he has worked with his father since 1992.
"He was acting the role of bouncer," Daniel Eldridge said
His father, 5-foot-10 and stocky, was also the establishment's bouncer, a role complicated by eyesight so poor that taking his thick glasses off meant losing sight of the opponent entirely, Daniel Eldridge said.
Daniel, 41, and the youngest of Eldridge's four children, was bequeathed Tom's Tavern by his father, he said. The establishment will stay in family hands.
A burger, fries and heap of coleslaw cost $7 on Monday, up from 85 cents in 1967, the year Eldridge "designed" his famous burger. In a 1986 Camera profile titled "He's Boulder's Burger Baron," Eldridge revealed two of his patties' secrets: the hamburger is never frozen, and it's cooked longer and at lower temperatures than other restaurants.
About a dozen customers sat in oxblood vinyl booths at Tom's during the lunch hour Monday. Paul Kuehnel and Dave Thompson ate the tavern's trademark burgers. They didn't know the founder had passed away.
"He'll be missed, and I hope the son continues the tradition," Kuehnel said.
Kuehnel also called Eldridge "a voice of reason on City Council - the voice of the common man."
Asked what he would miss about his father, Daniel Eldridge paused and said, "Everything. Tom was like my best friend and father at the same time."
Born in Chicago
Eldridge was born in Chicago and the eldest of three children. His father died when he was 7. In a 1983 Camera profile titled "There's more to Mr. Tavern than his burgers," Eldridge said he couldn't forget the days he and his mother and sisters waited for the Social Security check they lived on.
His mother moved the family to Denver when Eldridge was 12. He proved to be too much for his mother, Daniel Eldridge said; Eldridge's grandfather, whom they called "Pops," took charge, enrolling the grandson as a boarding student at Marmion Academy, a military school in Aurora, Ill.
"That's where he became this type-A personality," Daniel Eldridge said, shorthand for driven and hard-working.
Eldridge followed his father's footsteps as a cook for work crews laying track and repairing the Illinois Railroad. Eldridge attended the University of Colorado for 2Â½ years before going into business for himself full-time.
Eldridge worked in an office above Tom's Tavern, reading thick City Council packets, managing several commercial and residential real-estate investments and going downstairs to the restaurant to flip burgers or bus tables during busy hours.
"He worked his butt off," said Vicki Esparza, a longtime friend of Eldridge's who came to work as Tom's Tavern's general manager last year.
On the City Council, Eldridge was best known for his pithy wit and ability to sum up issues with a few choice words. He voted against extending meetings past 10 p.m. as a matter of principle.
Ruzzin said Eldridge was one of the hardest-working council members, and was driven to make Boulder a better place.
"He was someone who cared deeply about all aspects of the community," Ruzzin said. "He really rolled up his sleeves to try to solve problems."
Ruzzin said he initially pigeonholed Eldridge as the councilmember who represented business interests. Getting to know him better, Ruzzin said Eldridge was a "much deeper person" who was equally passionate about environmental and social issues.
Eldridge was one of the most vocal councilmembers when it came to taking action on climate change, and he championed affordable housing, serving for many years on an affordable housing committee, Ruzzin said.
Eldridge and his wife, Betty, traveled extensively, often to scuba-diving locales. Their destinations ranged from Fiji to China to Antarctica, his wife said.
His son Michael Eldridge said he and sister Jody Robinson recently asked Eldridge why he worked so hard his entire life. He told them it was to make sure their mother was taken care of.
"He put a lot of work in. He wasn't a flashy guy. He did it for his family," Michael Eldridge said. "He was a big believer that you have to work hard to get what you want out of life."
But Eldridge knew where to draw the line.
"A lot of people say you've got to grow, you've got to climb the ladder; but what's wrong with finding a niche and staying there?" Eldridge told the Camera in 1986. "I'm fine financially. I work hard enough here. I'll probably die here."
Camera Staff Writer Amy Bounds contributed to this report.