“I just hate throwing things away.”
Tom Ecker’s distaste for waste accounts for the expansive and varied record of his life that he keeps in many, many storage containers and filing cabinets in the basement of the home he shares with his wife, Carol.
That treasure trove of memories underpins Ecker’s new book, “Wherever I Choose: An Unauthorized Autobiography.” I met with the Eckers in a conference room at The Gazette offices to talk about the book and the astonishing life story it recounts.
According to Carol, Tom’s penchant for storytelling eventually invoked a consistent refrain. “People would say, ‘Tom, you’ve got to write a book,’” she said. “And eventually he said, ‘You know, I’m going to do it.’”
It didn’t happen quickly, however.
“It’s been a passion for many years,” the 85-year-old author explained. “Many years” turns out to mean seven years of stop-and-go progress possibly impeded by Ecker’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the effects of which he first felt as a child — well before ADHD was a medically recognized condition.
Ironically, Ecker wound up finding the focus he needed to complete the book while on a cruise. While such an adventure would normally be filled with tantalizing distractions that would likely keep one away from a writing project, the Eckers’ cruise didn’t work out that way. Tom began to experience intense pain in his legs (recent surgery has addressed the problem) and was largely confined to the ship. So while Carol investigated various ports of call, Tom holed up in the ship’s library for 29 days and finished the manuscript.
Readers should be glad he did. As his cheeky subtitle hints, “Wherever I Choose” is a humorous reflection on a long and amazingly full life. Ecker is self-deprecating and the text is often laugh-out-loud funny. And the stories he recounts are as fascinating as they are entertaining.
He recounts his childhood in Waverly during which he began to balance a variety of objects on his face to entertain crowds. We follow him through his long and varied career in athletics as a high school track coach, an international lecturer on Progressive Interval Training, the coach of the Swedish national track and field team, a designer for Cedar Rapids’ Nissen Corporation, and longtime athletic director for the Cedar Rapids Community School District where he was a champion of women’s athletics. He shares stories about dabbling in songwriting (and a near-encounter with Judy Garland). And he reflects on his longtime avocation as the creator of the popular Wuzzles and Crypto-Quote puzzles for newspapers. There is much more — and it is clear there has hardly been a dull moment in Ecker’s life or career. As a result of his storytelling prowess, there is hardly a dull sentence in his book.
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He had so much material that his editor — longtime friend and Gazette stalwart Mary Sharp — urged him to cut back a bit.
“I had a final long chapter called ‘Potpourri,’” he said, “and another that was my own quotations that I’ve made up over the years.” He chuckled. “Mary said to cut all of that,” he said without a hint of rancor.
The text may be shorter than Ecker originally intended, but it’s still long on action. His spirit of adventure has taken him to some amazing places, including each of the Summer Olympic Games dating back to 2000. He has covered those events for The Gazette, submitting articles on 19 consecutive days during the last games, and has done it for the love of event.
“I’ve always done it for free. Never, ever charged a penny,” he said.
He’s been working ahead on his Wuzzles and Crypto-Quote puzzles so that he and Carol can head to Tokyo for this summer’s Olympic Games. He produces 780 Wuzzles each year and recently wrote to a fan that he believes he has created more than 26,000 of the word puzzles over the years.
“That number makes me tired,” he wrote. The popular puzzles were first featured in The Gazette and when they were syndicated, Ecker insisted on a key provision in the contract. “The Gazette gets them for free,” he said. He personally delivers the puzzles to The Gazette for typesetting.
He credits his ability to function on little sleep for much of what he has accomplished over the years.
“Four or five hours was plenty,” he said of his younger days. “That gave me lots of hours to do other things.”
Among those other things is his upcoming book signing on March 8 at Zepplin’s Bar & Grill in Cedar Rapids. Carol decided the restaurant was the best possible venue, calling their friends “party-type people” who might not go to a reading at a more traditional venue like a bookstore or a library.
“They’ll go to a bar,” she said with a laugh.
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For his part, Ecker didn’t want to do the signing and Q&A at all. Carol had to cajole him into it. When I ask why, they both answer immediately.
“He’s modest,” Carol offered.
“I’m tired,” Tom explained.
Having read “Wherever I Choose,” I can certainly understand why Tom might be tired. But my guess is you won’t be able to tell if you join the “party-type people” for his book launch event.
• What: Tom Ecker will sign copies of his memoir, “Wherever I Choose: An Unauthorized Autobiography”
• When: 3 to 6 p.m. March 8
• Where: Zepplin’s Bar & Grill, 5300 Edgewood Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids