If they serve alcohol in Heaven, right now, Don Tompkins is going around asking, “Show me the courtesy” to have a drink with him. It was Tompkins’ signature line and will likely echo for years at Brother Don’s Bar & Grill in Bremerton or hundreds of other stomping grounds he roamed in his 88 years.
Tompkins, who never knew a stranger; had a smile that could crack the veneer of a person’s depression as easily as one cracks an egg; served as a mentor and friend to many; and could not turn down an invitation to party or organize a group of guys to go on golfing junkets from Gold Mountain to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He died March 31 of a heart attack.
“I called him the rock star,” said Gordon Rinke, who, with Bart Bruckman, is now a partner in Brother Don’s, having purchased it from Tompkins several years ago.
Golf played a central part of Tomkins’ adult life, but it was a funny thing. He loved golf, but golf didn’t like him, and his handicap was having a golf club in his hands.
Still, he played on.
“When he whiffed on his swing, he still counted that as a stroke,” Rinke said. “He just enjoyed golfing. He wasn’t very good at it, but he loved it. Everybody else would come in with scores in the 80s and 90s, and he would have 128.”
Once in Las Vegas, Tompkins turned in a very high score, and the tournament director was so impressed that he honored Tompkins for being the most honest golfer he had met.
Years ago, Tompkins organized a Brother Don’s golf league that plays every Wednesday at Gold Mountain. It has about 40 members and is based on handicaps that rise and drop every week. Jon Jennings, a former co-owner of a beer distributorship, figured he and Tompkins were neck-in-neck with the highest handicaps.
There are thousands of stories that can be told about Tompkins. Some of them can even be told in print. But the main story is a life that started with his birth in Orange, New Jersey, in 1934. He moved out west, courtesy of the Army, and was stationed for a good part of his two years of service at Fort Lawton (now known as Discovery Park) in the Magnolia district of Seattle.
Tompkins in 1955 enrolled at Western Washington College of Education (now Western Washington University) in Bellingham. He married his wife, Maryann, on Sept. 15, 1956, in Bellingham, and after receiving his teacher’s degree from Western, he collected his master’s at the University of Northern Colorado.
Tompkins taught special education in the Bremerton School District and became head of the alternative school located at Lincoln School. In 1978 he switched careers and opened up Brother Don’s on Kitsap Way.
“He thought teaching was no different than owning a bar,” says Pat Tompkins, the oldest of four sons. “He felt it was pretty much the same dealing with students as with bar patrons.”
For a brief time, Tompkins owned the second-coming of Melody Lane in downtown Bremerton. That is where Rinke, who had worked for Hilton Hotel in Florida, caught up with Tompkins and began working for him. He continued to work for Tompkins at Brother Don’s, and seven years ago, he and Geoff Tompkins, the second oldest Tompkins son, purchased it. Geoff sold his percentage of the bar to Bruckman four years ago and retired to the Phoenix area.
Life was meant to be enjoyed and Tompkins followed that script to the end. Rinke said, “He was the kind of employer that never let work interfere with golf. That was just his attitude.”
Jim Carlson, owner of Minder’s Meats in Bremerton, added, “When (Tompkins) laughed, the whole room laughed. He really, really enjoyed life.”
Carlson recalls the time Tompkins was with a group from Bremerton that went to a golf tournament in Bozeman, Montana. It was the year Bobby Knight was the guest speaker, and Jim Wenzl brought along the book “A Season on the Brink,” written by John Feinstein. The book doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Knight’s coaching methods, and as Wenzl approached Knight, he asked the Hall of Fame coach if he would sign the book.
You might recall the famous scene where an angry Knight threw a chair across the basketball floor during a game. Well, Knight said, “I won’t sign this blankly-blank book” and tossed it 30 feet.
Wenzl was stunned. But Tompkins, who had accompanied him as he approached Knight, broke out laughing.
Laughter can be the best medicine for what ails a person, and if that holds true, Tompkins used it to hold up for almost nine decades.
Before all the strict DWI laws began to show up on the books, local taverns were the headquarters for social networking. Bar owners led by Red Brown of Pop’s Inn and Tompkins and a few others formed the Kitsap County Bar and Restaurant Association. Tompkins severed as its president for eight years, which was only right because he made the rounds to keep in touch with other bar owners and to offer suggestions if asked what he would do when problems arose.
“He kept in touch with all the bar owners in town,” Carlson said. “He was somebody who people looked up to. He was there to show support.”
Rich Peachy, owner of A&C Sports Bar & Grill in East Bremerton, added, “Brother Don was an inspiration to a lot of us. He was our leader back in the day when we first got into the business as a young guy and needed a hand.”
Tompkins was a main local sponsor of recreational sports teams, most of them slowpitch softball. He also, with others including Brown, raised money for the scoreboard at Pendergast Regional Park. They collected so much money the excess was invested, and the interest return each year pays for a Red Brown Scholarship for a year at Olympic College for a softball player. The scholarship is administered by the Kitsap Athletic Roundtable.
Local bar owners came up with a wooden nickel idea: You purchased one for a buck and that would get you five schooners of beer.
Tompkins went one step further. He had the bright idea of putting his place — Brother Don’s — on a business card you could purchase for a buck. It worked out well, except if you washed your shirt with two of those business cards in the pocket.
“The cards turned to mush,” says Jennings. “One of them had three beers left on it and the other had two or three.”
Jennings pleaded with Tompkins to allow him the benefit of doubt and honor what he said was left on the cards. After some argument, Tompkins offered a roll of dice to decide the disagreement.
“I lost,” says Jennings. “They were his dice.”
Of course, Tompkins had a big smile on his face.
Tompkins did lose once in a while. He told Maryann he and a group of guys were going to Las Vegas to watch the Super Bowl. Maryann, who stayed behind to work Brother Don’s, finally caught on. When her husband got home, she simply said, “The Super Bowl wasn’t played in Las Vegas.”
“Yeah, he would be put on restriction every now and then,” laughed Jennings.
When Don “Homer” Lay Sr., a sports and business leader in the community, died in 2004 of cancer, he was cremated and his ashes spread in 2006 at Mesquite, Arizona. That’s because Lay was the organizer for the now semi-annual trips he and a group of guys made to enjoy golf and gambling. A book could be written on the stories about these trips, but it’s fair to say most will never see daylight in print.
Tompkins has been cremated, so the question was asked of Geoff what they were going to do with his ashes.
“We’ll spread them at Gold Mountain, Brother Don’s and Mesquite,” Geoff said, adding there may be other stops for them as well. But Mesquite is definitely on the agenda, because Tompkins was a regular on the trip.
Before then, stories will flow like beer on April 23 from noon until closing at an open house at Brother Don’s to celebrate the life of Don Tompkins as his many friends gather for one last sign-off.
“Anybody who came into Brother Don’s was a friend,” Jennings said. “Brother Don was just a great family man and an important figure in the entire community. Brother Don’s was a bar like ‘Cheers.’ You would pick on him and he would pick back. I just loved the place — small, overcrowded, service was great, food was great, and just all of that because of Don Tompkins.
“He will be sorely missed for sure.”
Terry Mosher is a longtime Sun sports writer who writes a regular column on Kitsap sports personalities. Contact him at email@example.com.