Golden Gate Park has seen its fair share of important events, joyous celebrations, and countless legends. Today, at least for me, was no exception. Though I didn’t know it when I arrived. It was one of those special moments you only realize are special after they’ve happened.
We arrive early at Stow Lake, we being me and our Media Producer Kirsten, to get everything set up for our interview and photoshoot.
It’s a typical foggy morning, the famous mist beautiful above the water, wafting through the many bird-filled trees.
We’re here to meet SF Fire Credit Union member Tom Sweeney. He took the time to send us a handwritten postcard with a note that read, "The Credit Union staff is so great. I would not go to any other bank." He’s been a member for 64 years. There was a photo of him in the world-famous Beefeater uniform from the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.
The act of sending a postcard was special. It felt more personal, more connected somehow. His note meant a lot to all of us at the credit union too, since the Beefeaters are renowned for their excellent service. If we can live up to their standards, we must be doing something right. So we called him to see if he wanted to meet up and talk.
This is pretty much all we know about him as we start setting up cameras and doing sound checks. But we will soon learn all about the extraordinary life of this living legend, who is just as famous around the world as the hotel itself.
Shortly after we finish setting up, we see a tall man with a very large and very warm smile walking towards us. He’s waving happily and wearing an almost blindingly bright orange Adidas running shirt.
He’s hard to miss and, we’ll leave realizing, harder not to like.
We make our introductions and as we start talking, Tom’s unique choice of shirt makes sense. You see, he’s an avid runner. In fact, he’s ran over 34 marathons across the country and the world. New York, Boston, Chicago, DC, if a major city has a race, odds are he’s run it.
Bay to Breakers? Yup, that one too. For 40 years. In his Sir Francis Drake Beefeater uniform. Which, by the way, weighs over 40 pounds.
If you think his running history is impressive, hold on. We’re just getting started.
When Tom Sweeney first put on the Beefeater uniform, he had no idea it would lead to such a storied career.
After high school, Tom wanted to join either the San Francisco Fire Department or the SFPD. Serving his community was important to him. But he was too young. So, he thought he’d look for a summer job and wait it out.
Somebody told him he’d be a good fit for the hotel industry and his mother knew the general manager at the Sir Francis Drake. Tom made a call and set up an interview. The timing couldn’t have been better. The current doorman was retiring, and the hotel was desperate to fill the position. Tom started the next week.
And stayed for 43 years.
What was supposed to be a simple summer job took Tom places he never thought he’d go, allowed him to meet people he never thought he’d meet, and solidified his place in San Francisco’s history.
It made him a modern-day legend and San Francisco icon. And he’s got the photos, newspaper articles, and videos to back that up.
Almost immediately after we meet, Tom starts excitedly showing us photos and newspaper articles. Laying them on the picnic table one after another, and talking rapidly, happily about the places he’s been, the people he’s met, and the things he’s done.
You can see it in his eyes, his smile. There’s a glow about him as he talks about his life. He’s immensely proud, and he should be. But he’s humble about it too. There isn’t an element of boasting or ego when he talks. It’s a pure sort of pride, like he simply must talk about it because he still can’t believe it actually happened to him.
Over his 43-year career, Tom’s met a whole host of celebrities including Sharon Stone, Harrison Ford, and Julia Roberts. He even got a call from the White House to hang out with Tony Blair.
He’s been on the Young and the Restless. In a movie with Sam Elliott called Dogwatch. Had his face on room keys, luggage tags, t-shirts, and water bottles.
He’s the most photographed man in San Francisco history.
All of this is beyond impressive, but I get a real kick when he shows us a photograph of him with Mayor Feinstein, Joe Montana, and Dwight Clark.
The story behind the photo? In 1981, Tom stopped two would-be robbers attempting to mug a tourist checking out of a hotel. Tom sprang into action and tackled both of them at once. That same week, Joe Montana threw the famous championship-winning touchdown pass to Dwight Clark that took the 49ers to their first Super Bowl.
To commemorate Tom’s heroism and the 49ers victory, the Mayor invited them to her office and presented them with awards labeled Quarterback, Receiver, and Tackle.
Tom gives Kirsten and me a copy of the photo. And without shame or hesitation, I ask him to autograph it. Because that’s what you do in the presence of a legend, right?
The Sir Francis Drake has changed owners, their name, and dropped the Beefeater uniforms. Signaling the end of an era.
Tom’s first Beefeater uniform cost $600. When he retired they were $3,000. He has 46 uniforms at home. And, fittingly, he was the last person to ever wear one.
He says he’s enjoying retirement, spending time with his wife, 2 kids, and 4 grandkids. And running at least 2 hours every day, of course.
Before we leave, we take some photos and Tom shows us his signature cab-calling move. It’s a rapid fire, point and snap-type move. Taxi drivers all over the city recognized it from blocks away.
Tom’s pointing and snapping and yelling, “Taxi! Taxi!” and the people at Stow Lake turn and look, captivated and perhaps a little entranced. Maybe they know, intrinsically, the history around this simple gesture, and that they’re fortunate enough to see it one more time.