Tommy Sykes

Thomas James Sykes

October 25, 1953 ~ May 19, 1984


Tommy attended our 10 Year Class Reunion in 1981. Sadly, for many of us, this was the last time we would see and visit with our talented classmate..

We know that his family and close friends miss him every day.

Parents: Dr. Edwin and Elizabeth Sykes
Sister: Anne Sykes
Brothers: Edwin, Mellick, Andrew
Graduated with Honors from University of Texas School of Architecture, Austin, TX
Taught Architecture at San Antonio College
Accepted at Holy Orders Seminary in Sewanee, but found that the facilities would not accomodate him.
Death: May 19, 1984 San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas, from Multiple Sclerosis

Alamo Heights High School graduate Thomas James Sykes died May 19, 1984 after a lengthy illness. He was 30 years old.
Following his graduation from Heights he attended The University of Texas at Austin school of architecture where he graduated with honors.
He is survived by his parents, Dr. and Mrs. Edwin M. Sykes, Jr. of San Antonio; sister, Anne Reese of San Angelo; and brothers, Edwin M. Sykes III of Austin, Dr. Mellick T. Sykes, and Andrew G. Sykes, both of San Antonio.

. . ~ . .
Left: Boston around 1972 ~ Right: San Antonio around 1977

photo from Tommy's brother Drew - Tommy in 1971 at the Ranch

around 1970

AHHS Interests and Affiliations:
football; track; rep. at science fair; science research club; student council;
student faculty board; student review; mule stall councel; class sgt at arms; Jabberwocky;
student council
business manager, junior urban coalition

Jabberwocki Senior Year

Junior Class Sgt at Arms

Remembering Tommy ...

From Tommy's brother, Drew:
After graduation from high school, Tommy went to Boston for a year where he stayed with a family who had just returned from seven years in South Africa with their three children. Tommy explored his newly found freedom with jobs of babysitting the three kids, house painting, developing a stronger faith in Christianity, playing guitar, and learning black and white photography.
When Tommy returned to Texas he went to Austin and enrolled at UT in the Architectural School and in 1977 graduated with honors. He was particularly interested in alternative energy systems as they relate to architecture. Passive and active solar, wind energy, and alternative building materials.
His last couple years at UT were not easy as the Multiple Sclerosis that became evident in 1975 was rapidly progressive and began to handicap him with double vision and coordination problems. However, after graduating from UT he returned to San Antonio and taught a semester of architecture at San Antonio College, designed some townhouses for a client, and remodeled his parents' home. He worked on wheelchair designs and wrote several books on architectrural concepts for the young in age and heart. He was accepted for Holy Orders at the Seminary in Sewanee where he hoped to develop ideas on designs for churches with better access for the handicapped, but found the facilities there would not accommodate him.
By 1980 his weakness was more profound. Ever the pioneer that he was, Tommy found a computer expert to put the Morse Code on a computer so that Tommy could type messages to us.
He died peacefully at home on May 19, 1984. He willed his central nervous system to be used for research. His ashes are buried on a hill at his beloved family land, the Knickerbocker Ranch, located 20 misles southwest of San Angelo. ~ Drew Sykes

Stories from Rusty:
I last saw Tommy at our 10 year reunion when he was completely dependent on a motorized wheel chair. We had a good visit & lots of laughs with regard to  our adventures & youthful indiscretions!

I have 2 favorite stories on my adventures with Tommy. As was often the case in high school I would often sneak out late at night to begin my late night time jaunts of generally harmless, but certainly mischievous behavior. Many of my partners were Bubba Groos, Graham Hall, Quinn Williams & of course Tommy Sykes, but only occasionally with Tommy since he lived in Alamo Heights while the rest of us lived in Terrell Hills. On this particular night, Tommy & I ventured up to the high school. You see I had purposely left a window unlocked, but pulled shut, at the end of one of my classes during the day. Tommy & I entered the window shortly after 2 am & spent the better part of the next 90 minutes roaming the halls & classrooms of AHHS with markers (water soluble variety) to leave our wry, rude comments on the many windows, walls, classrooms, chalkboards & ceilings, mostly anything was our canvas, knowing the next day would be a buzz of activity by the AHHS staff. Yet, lo & behold upon our arriving for school the next morning all of our efforts had been stunningly removed (much to our dismay) before the start of school, thus our plot had been foiled by the early arrival of the AHHS efficient janitorial staff.

The second event was more wild. Graham & I headed for a couple of weeks of camping in Colorado & Wyoming in my parents station wagon. We were 15-16 at the time & soon to be Juniors in high school. Tommy could not leave at the same time that we did so he would meet up with us later after taking a Grey Hound Bus & hitch hiking to Saratoga Wyoming on the N. Platte River, only to find we were not in town. We had left town to camp & fish on a friend of my parents ranch 15 miles north of town. Tommy borrowed from the owner of the local bar, an old Willy’s jeep & with directions to this 160 acre parcel on the N Platte River headed off on the Overland Trail to find us. Well, it so happened that on that day Graham & I were in the middle of the large Bolton Ranch (150,000+ acres) trying to catch snakes which would return with us to Texas.  Tommy apparently got the Willy’s stuck & left a note at the 2 cabins on the property for Graham & I that basically said he had just borrowed, not stolen a chained up boat at the cabin where we were staying & alto he did not have a paddle, he did have a shovel & was going to float in the river back to town which was south of where his mishap had occurred. It was signed, “without food, maps or knowledge of the danger involved I am floating back to Saratoga, your Daniel Boone in Wyoming, T.S.” There was only one problem…..the N Platte River flowed north NOT south. Graham & I looked at several takeout spots until dark then gave up. We went back to town & slept in the back of the car, awaiting daylight to talk to the locals and/or Sheriff. Come daylight the locals did not care much about our plight, so I told Graham that I had a hunch that Tommy might cross under Interstate 80 on the river that day since he was heading north in the “borrowed boat”. The crossing was a good 40 miles north of Saratoga, so off we went. No sooner had we pulled off the Interstate & headed south on a dirt road close to the river, but around the bend came Tommy boat & all. He was cold, hungry & a little confused, but reunited with his buddies who returned the boat & continued our adventures for another week or so. The note Tommy left before he struck out on his own was hysterical & I believe my parents gave it to his parents many years later. ~ Rusty Brusenhan, September 2011

A lasting impact:
I spent an afternoon with Tommy Sykes not too many years after graduation. It was quite memorable for me and had a lasting impact. While we'd always been friendly, I'd never spent time with Tommy outside of high school nor ever been to his home. Somehow, within a few years of graduation we ran into each other. I accepted his offer to visit and we had a chance to talk about his illness, mortality, etc. I remember he was having difficulty speaking at that time. He was well aware of his situation and his honesty in discussing it affected me. I was not in San Antonio often and sometime later learned of Tommy's death. Later, I became a nurse, and believe Tommy's openness in discussing his situation helped me with patients in similar situations. For this I remain thankful. ~ Michael Lyman, August 2001

Ilse remembers:
being at St. Lukes with Tommy; and his mother and my mother carpooling.  Tommy and I were friends back then as we just lived around the corner from each other.  He was such a sweet guy ~ Ilse Garrett

Colin Remembers:
I first met Tommy Sykes in sophomore football. We hit it off as friends right off the bat. I get the feeling, however, that Tommy made friends very easily, and he seemed to know no strangers. I remember Tommy playing the line with me, and at first wondered why a smaller guy was on the line. But in football Tommy was tough. He was so quick, and alert that he could get in there and make a tackle before the ball carrier knew what hit him. Tommy played hard. He was a go-getter. He played to his fullest capacity. Later in High School, we sat next to each other in some classes. When it came to school, Tommy was a pretty serious student. Where some of us would cut up in class by talking, or goofing off, Tommy would let us know he didn't appreciate us interfering with class. I think that he was not only trying to learn as much as he could, but thought we were showing disrespect for the teacher. And he didn't care for that. He was right. Very right. Tommy was a little more mature than some of us those days, and although I didn't like it then, I respect him for it now. Tommy was normally a pretty quiet guy. That is until you started to talk to him about important issues either about the school, or the country or the politics of the times. Then he could converse with just about anyone on just about anything. He was very smart, and it was enlightening to talk with him. In some ways he was a role model for his contemporaries. He quietly went about his business in a way that you wish you could, but couldn't. And he did this with a quality that one can't help but envy. I miss Tommy Sykes, as I'm sure anyone who knew him misses him too. ~ Colin Campbell, September 2001


"...I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!" Author, Jack Kerouac, On the Road

I read that years after Thomas James Sykes left us and a tuning fork in my mind starts ringing with loud resonance. It's hard for me to write about Tommy because all of a sudden I am a clumsy bumkin in heavy shoes describing dancing. It is not because I am inadequate. It is because I am ordinary, and Tommy was not. Tommy would never have made me feel that way, though, and it was not just because he was nice. It had to do with getting something from you and giving something to you - a great exchange thing, whether it was about ideas or experiences, or just presence.

There are problems in trying to describe an excellent friend. There is a tendency to go mythic and make him bigger than life, which is not good enough to describe such pungent aliveness. Then, too, there is a tendency to go maudlin, which is too small a garment to get the whole truth into. And when I think about the depth and the verve too much, it all goes amorphous and vanishes, refusing, like a shadow, to be pinned down to what is merely substantial. The best of what I've got are glimpses, like snapshots, things that catch and form the occasional parts of a collage, the parts of Tommy I knew. Like colors to such an artist as Tommy, these hues show up - incredible vitality, true artistic vision, intrinsic excellence, and then stunning acceptance and transcendence.

As to the vitality, I think it was always there. Tommy told me we met when we were two years old, when we fought under a table at a lawn party. I don't remember ever fighting with him, but I do remember his energy. Without being confrontational, he was always "out there." As nine-year-olds, I remember him saying out loud things I only timidly thought about, like how the nylon swim team swimsuits had a way of filtering farts that made them less entertaining. As kids, Tommy and I swam together on a country club swim team. Tommy kept at it, moving on to the San Antonio Aquatic Club. I went with him once, and once was enough. This was a new level of torture, this swimming of miles as a warmup. It didn't seem to bother Tommy. Although he and I were not destined to outsize anybody on the football field, he had this bulldog tenacity that made him incredibly annoying to adversaries. He was just not going to be ignored.

During high school, some of us used to go to the San Antonio School of Judo, where we would rent mini-bikes and race them around this little dirt flat track they had. Once I saw Tommy making ground and coming up on the outside of Quinn Williams, who kicked back into Tommy's front wheel, sending him and the bike base over apex down this little hill. I saw Tommy mount again his Briggs and Stratton steed, get back up on the track and gain on Quinn again. Before he got within kicking distance, Tommy leaped forward off the mini-bike and tackled Quinn, both of them going down in a rolling pile under the tumbling mini-bikes. I remember all of us in aching laughter, like bellows that come from deep mindless exuberance. It was classic Sykes.

To really remember Tommy adequately would require a lot of us sitting around a table jacked up on caffeine for a good, long while. But there is one thing that we would all agree on: Tommy was not ordinary. Just last week Rusty Brusenhan told me about a time when he and Graham Hall were supposed to meet Tommy somewhere in Wyoming, and after a lot of circumstances that involved missed connections, the breaking down of cars, and the commandeering of a skiff or a canoe, they managed to spot him from a bridge as he was paddling north on a river he thought was going south. What are the odds? The story instantly rang true; it was just unusual enough.

This exuberance, this vigor, this "enthused-ness" - it's in so many of the things Tommy did. I remember Tommy's brother Mac talking about trying to visit Tommy in Austin when he was in the architecture school at UT. Mac gave up on waiting at his apartment, and went to the architecture school and started asking around for Tommy, and eventually someone said they knew which couch in which hallway on which floor in the school Tommy was sleeping on; Tommy just didn't see the use of wasting time going home to sleep if he was really into a project. (Leaning on his open-mindedness, one semester Tommy even tried living in his white Dodge van - "With a student ID card I can shower at any UTgym and in a van I can live in any part of town I choose that night.")

I can't portray how Tommy was without mentioning the Sykes house. Things often seem different to a guest, but I remember the Sykes house as a nidus for ideas and discussion. Things got talked about. Opinions and viewpoints got exchanged. People got listened to. Dr. Sykes actually studied professional publications and findings in the evening - a visual commitment to continued learning. Mrs. Sykes was never patronizing about a younger person's viewpoint. Sykes offspring were all allowed their different gifts and passions, and they had them. Con mucho gusto.

Tommy was the first real artist I ever knew. No offense to other artists, but I have never known another like him. Once at Cambridge Elementary, we were given a project that had to have a report cover that displayed our chosen topic. I remember my bread-dough-on-cardboard thing in the shape of Texas that I thought looked pretty good. Until I saw the freehand drawing Tommy had made of three men working a printing press, and how, looking at the picture, you could tell what the men were doing and how the press worked. I remember feeling a little pissed off. It was all pretty evident then, this gift of his.

Tommy's right-brained, artist point of view is something I still think about. He was a non-conformist seeker in most aspects of what I observed of him. He would make silk-screens with this incredible, fluid, minimalist dexterity. With only a few strokes or wavy lines, it was obvious to you that these were old cowboys smoking at a domino table. He would return books with running visual commentary, cartoons penciled in the margins that spoke his reaction. (A magician pulling cards out of his sleeve would mean that this author is pulling arguments out of nowhere.) His photography would innovatively frame social or visual contrasts using contrasty black and white prints. He could see the essence of things when others were hopelessly tripped up in the unrelated details. He chased all disciplines with this artistic open-mindedness, too. When he studied architecture, he had to read the Greeks' philosophy while he studied their architecture. It wasn't going to be enough to recognize form and function. With Tommy, form and function were going to have to waltz to Strauss.

Graham Hall told me about being at a UT Plan II party of some sort that was attended by some pretty heady intellectual and professorial types. He happened to meet an architecture professor and mentioned that he knew someone who had gone through the architecture school. The prof asked who and Graham mentioned Tommy and it was evidently like a starter's pistol and the prof was off - talking about Tommy, talking about Tommy's work, talking about the few chances in a professor's life to work with someone they know will be one of the ones that shakes things up and make the big splash.

Tommy's creative outlook was not going to be contained or conformed. Somehow, in any given situation, it was going to pop out like some life-force version of whack-a-mole. Lines were not boundaries; they were just details within a larger picture. Limitations and boundaries were something to see beyond.

While in college, Tommy had a motorcycle accident in which he took more of a pounding than on the mini-bikes in high school. Riding a Triumph Trophy around a curve near Ingram Dam, Tommy slid on a swath of gravel and dirt that had washed out into the road after a rain. Among other injuries, he broke the orbital bone over his eye, which made for headaches, split vision, and balance problems. In general, they were injury enough for the symptoms of multiple sclerosis to hide behind. For a while. The eventual diagnosis of MS rocked dreams, broke a relationship, and probably would have broken most any other person. I feel robbed by what Tommy suffered, and by what I feel we didn't get to witness due to life cut short. But looking back after the passage of more time, this was the point where knowing Tommy went from impressive to stunning.

Setting: Camping next to Dove Creek near Knickerbocker, Texas. Tommy has had MS long enough to have balance problems and require the use of a cane. We arrive and pull out sleeping bags and gear. While I am fiddling with gear, Tommy says it's a good time for a swim, and has plopped down on his bag and quickly peeled off all clothing, grabbed his cane, and with a fast, unsteady gate made it to the little crest that looks down three or four feet to a swimming hole. I'm thinking, "Hell, I better hurry up and help him or he's bound to fall down." Before I can get up, he's flung his cane to the ground and thrown himself into the swimming hole below. I rush to the edge thinking, "Oh, shit, I better get in there or he'll drown," but when I get there he's swimming with this beautiful, unfettered style all over the pool. He's gone to the water like a hummingbird to a bloom, and was transformed from what was halting and unsteady to what was fluid and graceful.
I think: He's in another medium.

Setting: Downtown Baptist Hospital. Tommy is here because of a minor infection; the type of inconvenience that he takes in stride. We are turning 30, and I am not doing it well. I am feeling like I haven't experienced enough in my years, and am telling Tommy about having gone skydiving, and about other things I would like to do in my thirtieth year. I have a dopey idea: "Tommy, this could be like a project. If you want to make a list of the things that you're curious about, I'll try to do them and report back to you." (I am later ashamed at the goofy hubris of this notion.)
Tommy smiles, kindly. He says, "I'm afraid most of my fantasies are architectural."
I raise an eyebrow and tell him I doubt that I'm going to be able help him; just what kind of fantasies?
"Nothing big. A city, maybe. There's never been one that was designed well."
I notice: He still thinks a lot bigger than I do.

Setting: Tommy's home, in the bright large ground-floor bedroom. Tommy has literature about Morse Code. I am bemused, and say something like, "Oh, Morse code," hoping Tommy will fill in his dim friend.
"Yes. I'm learning Morse code," he says. He tells me the plan: In the later stages of MS, speaking becomes difficult. But the ability to squeeze your fist is about the longest lasting voluntary movement. Tommy thinks it will be possible to devise some way for him to squeeze Morse code on something and have it spelled out on a computer. I don't tell him how flimsy I think the plan is.
I notice: He is seeing past the present.

Setting: Afternoon at Tommy's. I notice there are hundreds of small sheets of paper affixed to the ceiling in strips starting above Tommy's bed and extending all the way down the far wall. They are silk-screened with different shapes and colors, one entire row being purple plum shapes, another row being a different shape and color. There are many shapes and many colors.
As usual I don't understand. I say, "Nice decorations."
Tommy explains, "I'm pretty much stuck here and have to look at them day in and day out. In a month's time, some of the shapes and some of the colors will still be appealing. The others I will be sick of. The secret is that the ones that I still like will be the best shapes and colors to use in design.
I realize: He has even recruited his disability in service of his art.

Setting: Tommy's bedroom. It is before daylight. I have come by before work because Tommy has mentioned that it is his best time to visit. It is cool and he is not tired. (Two things that visibly drain his energy level are heat and fatigue.) The door is unlocked to allow anybody to visit like this without disturbing others in the house. I slowly open it and whisper into the dark room, "Tommy, are you awake?"
"Can I come in?"
"Yes, please do."
"Would you like me to turn on a light?" I ask.
"Please no."
Again, this is a Tommy thing that I don't understand, so I grope my way to a chair near him and wait before asking, "OK, so what's with the lights?"
Tommy explains, "Lately I have been letting God turn on the lights. I wait and let the sunrise light things up. Then before sunset, I get everybody to turn off the electric lights, and so God turns the lights off again."
I know that one of the biggest effects of MS is incredible frustration; the mind is 110% but less and less able to effect its will with the body.
I am stunned: He has such an incredible acceptance of the rhythms of life.

Setting: Early morning at Tommy's. We are talking about some favorite verses from the Bible. Concepts. (One of my favorite verses is "do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…" Whether he knew it or not, Tommy has always seemed to have this injunction down pat.) We also talk about things like references to vision's transforming ability. I am making an attempt at reading John Owen's idea of glory aloud and it is proving to be wordy.
After stumbling through a couple of pages, I ask Tommy if he wants me to read on. I can't understand his whispered reply, and while I lean in close to hear, there is a "beep, beep, beeeeeeep," and I realize that Tommy's too tired to speak clearly and is squeezing out his comments in Morse code. Letter by letter, his reply is showing up on the Apple computer monitor. It will take a couple of moments, so I go to the Sykes kitchen and make a cup of coffee and say hello to Mrs. Sykes.
I return to Tommy and find that the screen is filled with an insightful, humorous response to being forced to listen to a tortured reading of wordy ancient theologians. Tommy has quoted some of it and has commented on it. And his answer to my query about reading more: "A little at a time will do."
I realize: He is disabled but is not hindered by my clumsy lack of disability.

I have a whole grab-bag of memory-glimpses of Tommy. Exuberant skipper-outers in Johnny Clark's old Chrysler on our way to Stinky Falls with the windows down in winter and all of us screaming along to "Happiness is a Warm Gun." 10th grade - following Tommy to the Army Navy Store in Austin where we purchased real white Navy bell-bottoms, with huge bells and button down fronts - for a couple of days we had the coolest pants in high school. Working at the Grandma's Cookie Factory jobs he got us, trying to pack boxes with bags of cookies coming off of a conveyor belt with "I-Love-Lucy-like" results. The wainscoting in Tommy's extra bedroom, done entirely in cardboard Falfurias Butter boxes - he loved the way the design looked, and yes, the people at Falfurias agreed to send them to him.
But the big thing for me has to do with the creative way he looked at things. The creative way he looked beyond things. The way he let his weaknesses serve his strengths, letting his suffering achieve a "greater weight of glory." As a sinner, I like sharing some of the same faith of someone who was able to think big - knowing that one who had never seen a well-designed city looked forward to "a city prepared for him." I am grateful for the great exchange thing that Tommy had.
And I always remember what he taught me about the squeezing of a hand - that it's the thing we can do when other voluntary efforts are no longer possible. I think: No wonder it's so hard to let go.

~ Bubba Groos

Go to Home Page ~ Go to Memorial Page