We’ve Lost Tom

It’s with an extremely heavy heart that we announce the passing of a longtime member of the Burning Man family, Tom “Lost Tom” LaPorte.

There aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to describe Tom and the effect he had on everyone who had the privilege to know him: Loving, kind, passionate, selfless, inspirational, collaborator, confidant, innovator, gentleman, mentor, the real deal, a class act, community organizer extraordinaire, an embracer of the chaos, “a grown-up amongst us kids,” and, to everyone, a dear friend. He truly loved people, individually and collectively. He found the best in everyone — and touched everyone.

This remembrance, much like everything he did, is a collaboration among friends and acquaintances who came to know Tom through his work in Chicago art community, with Burners Without Borders, BMIR, Media Mecca and the Regional Network.

Tom embodied the best of Burning Man before he ever set foot on the playa. He was first and foremost a storyteller. Inspired by an interview he did with political and social activist Abbie Hoffman for his high school newspaper during the Chicago 7 trial, he pursued a career in journalism, working for some of the top Chicago media outlets, eventually working for the City of Chicago as Assistant Water Commissioner, where he honed his second strength — collaboration — working with residents, local businesses, community and church groups to leverage the infamous Chicago bureaucracy and political machinery for the forces of good. He always looked out for the less fortunate and those in need.

First Year at Burning Man

Tom’s first year at the Burn was 2005 as a member of Bop Camp, a fun-loving crew of Chicago Burners that had somehow achieved Esplanade frontage offering an ungainly jousting experience utilizing motorcycle helmets and stuffed animals duct taped to PVC pipes. He dove in with gusto, cheering the burning of the Man dressed as the ace of spades, his first and only costume of choice. He also, however, brought a skeptical eye to any endeavor, helping Burners to learn to ask the “old questions we always asked in the news business: ‘who cares?’ and ‘so what?’”

Media Mecca

Tom with Andie Grace and Jodie “Tigger” Kahn (Photo by ©dimitre.com)

Shortly after finding the playa, Tom was recruited for the media team and never looked back. He quickly rose through the ranks (as much as there are ranks) to become a media team captain. He worked the press with an ease that only comes with decades of experience, and he mentored new team members on the delicate art of interacting with the hundreds of reporters, photographers and videographers who made the trek to the playa each year. He went on to be an executive producer of the Profiles in Dust video series, telling up-close and personal stories about the teams that make each part of the Burning Man magic happen.

BMIR

Tom and John Fenoglio working on a 5 pm news broadcast for BMIR (Photo by ©dimitre.com)

While he enjoyed working with the press, Tom’s first love was radio, and it was only a matter of time before he joined the Burning Man Information Radio (BMIR) team. In 2009, he spearheaded the first ever Man Base Broadcast, of which we was an integral part ever since. His voice could (and still can?) be heard on whimsical PSAs that he wrote and recorded to make sure that the citizens of BRC were informed on issues ranging from washing your hands to not using the water trucks as mobile showers. He used his voice to organize, create, collaborate, spur action, connect people, speak truth to power, and help others.

After he had a heart attack on the playa a few years back, we renamed our production studio the “Tom LaPorte Presidential Suite” and set up a futon, where Tom had 24/7 access to an air conditioned bed to lay on in the heat of the day if he needed to relax. Pretty much every day, at any hour, you could find Tom in the BMIR lounge waxing poetic about the power of this community and what we can do to make it even stronger.

Webcast

For many years, Tom was the voice of the Burn, not just as a narrator, but as an emotional guide for participants unable to make it to the desert. He recognized the viewers’ spiritual yearnings to join us on playa and would reserve his most thoughtful, engaging prose to connect with our audience in a way the camera alone could never do. He made folks at home feel like they were with us in the dust and flames, no matter how far away.

Burners Without Borders

Rothbury Music Festival, 2009 (Photo by credit: Philamonjaro)

The playa was never big enough for what Tom had to offer. When participants left the event in 2005 to help communities ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, Tom followed. He immediately grasped how Burners could do work that matters not just in the desert but in the hearts of communities everywhere. In fact it was what he had been doing himself for years, bringing creativity to the streets of Chicago and creating unlikely connections.

Tom came back from Katrina and started promoting Burners Without Borders in Chicago, and suddenly all his projects became BWB projects. He was constantly pushing the boundaries of BWB. He initiated the Chicago takeover of BWB Camp in 2009 and turned the camp into what it is today.

He also started the Music Box Project, his attempt at explaining “Cultural First Response” to the world. Musicians could become first responders themselves and give the art of healing through music in the hardest of times.

Tom did so many things for BWB. It’s hard to even capture. He was constantly testing out new ideas, pushing the edges, and creating community.

Regionals

From the GLC, taken by one of our photographers

Tom never missed an opportunity to share his experience or encourage others — friends and strangers alike — to expand their horizons. He participated in every Burning Man Global Leadership Conference since it began in 2007, lending his considerable experience teaching and inspiring newbie and veteran volunteers. From moderating panels about building bridges with unlikely allies to offering creative storytelling workshops, he empowered innumerable Burners at the conference with the skills to lead the charge and support the growth of events and activation projects inspired by the 10 Principles in their hometowns. Tom co-presented an annual seminar on PR and Crisis Communications, and, when something happened at a Regional Event, he was there to counsel organizers.

Up until his passing, he was working to shape several sessions at this year’s conference. His passion lives on in the work of those he taught, mentored and inspired.

Chicago

Tom was at home on the playa, but Chicago was Home, and some of his most creative endeavors involved local pranksters, artists and Burners. Long before his interest in Burning Man, Tom was already a Chicago legend. As Jim Belushi’s college roommate and partner in mischief, he went around to the Albanian homes in the suburbs dressed as “Frostbite the Elf” to Jim’s blotto Albanian Santa.

Tom was never satisfied with having achieved greatness for himself in the past. His interests lay in making new history, with other people, especially young people who were trying things out for the first time and needed guidance. He constantly was seeking them out, attending events into the wee hours, making new friends and offering connections to the hundreds of people he’d already helped over many decades, forging new collaborations and opening doors for the new blood.

Tom was a founding member of the Burning Man Chicago Steering Committee, which gave rise to the local Burner 501c3 Bold Urban Renaissance Network. He created and led art teams at the Rothbury and Electric Forest music festivals; Second Thoughts, which made videos that opened up for Bob Dylan and the Dead; The Human Avatar Project and Einstein Moments, which created participatory creativity games.

Listing programs he “spearheaded” or “supported” doesn’t do him (or them) justice, but they include Loyola Earth Nights, The Green Office Artistic Challenge, Halloween Parades, Downspout Disconnection Days, Basement Flooding Concerts, Recycled Art School Projects, Looptopia and Chiditarod.

(Photo by ©dimitre.com)

Closing

That was the thing with Tom, the thing that inspired all of those around him: Everything was possible.

He loved his life and made the most of every day, and he loved and lived our values and community through and through.

We are all better and a little weirder because of him. The playa will seem a little more empty this year.

We invite everyone to share their remembrances.

“There is nothing about Burning Man that restricts our best work to a desert. By finding ways to authentically burn in our far flung communities, we get closer to a day in which we can say ‘Welcome Home’ anywhere in the universe.”

— Lost Tom


(Top photo by ©dimitre.com)

About the author: Burning Man

Burning Man

The official voice of the Burning Man organization, managed by Burning Man's Communications Team.

33 Comments on “We’ve Lost Tom

  • Tom will be deeply missed by the entire BMIR crew,

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  • Ammo says:

    He was such a pillar in our Chicago burner community. He made connections everywhere with everyone. His kindness, generosity and open heart will be missed.

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  • Flip says:

    Love that guy.

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  • spotter says:

    Tom will surely be missed. He was from Chicago but spent his life informing people from around the globe to expand your horizons. With so many projects he was involved with and mentored others to take over and run with. BM and the world have lost a good one.

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  • John McIntire says:

    I was also Tom’s college roommate. He was creating communities, starting umpteen projects, writing parody songs, doing radio documentaries, drinking too much caffeine, engaging in pranks and encouraging others to become pranksters back then. Which is why when I hosted beach night at a local bar I threw dead fish at the audience… That LaPorte touch of authenticity. He once sabotaged a faculty member’s classical radio show br replacing Bach with the theme song from Bonanza sung by Lorne Green. I can’t believe he’s gone.

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  • Vertumnus says:

    Great guy. Pleasure to have known / met him

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  • JackieJack says:

    So sad to hear. Thank you for sharing, with such a prolific life, he’s an inspiration. Love to all.

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  • Eric Mar says:

    I’m really sad. I loved Tom too… Thank you for this beautiful tribute.
    To remember (and NEVER forget) him, I will be burning a tribute to Lost Tom at SF’s Ocean Beach at sunset tonight in the spot where Burners Without Borders have saved our historic community use of fire pits for bonfires at the beach for generations to come…

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  • John Fenoglio says:

    Tom took me to my first Burn. He is responsible for introducing me to so many people in our community who are now dear friends. Had it not been for Tom taking me to the playa, I would have never met my partner (we’ve been together for 8 years now after meeting at Media Mecca). Tom also taught me how to be a journalist and mentored me through most of my career. More importantly, though, he was a wise and generous friend. We worked together on more projects than I can remember and we had some fine times together. I love this article. Tom was like a twisted and incredibly kind Roman Senator, a man who believed in the power of the human spirit to create community. He also drank all my beer. I love you, Tom, with all my heart and will miss you dearly.

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    • Megs says:

      LOL, Beasties. I have really fun memories of seeing you rabble rousers roll up to Media Mecca. He was so good hearted, and also a prankster and bad boy. I loved that about him.

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  • ShaneSaw says:

    Witty banter, to the point critical thought, and most of all, a friend. I will miss you Tom. You made many an occasion a little easier. Love to you in the beyond.

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  • Dustin Fasman says:

    Rest in peace my friend. It was so much fun starting Profiles in Dust and the Playa Premiers film festival with Tom, among many of his inspirations. He knew everyone who was anyone at BMan, and introduced me to many of my playa friends. I’ll really miss you.

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  • Willie SaySo says:

    Tom was my friend, my Burn brother, and my mentor. I’m just one of the many lives he’s changed forever. Our time together was brief, but we loved each other dearly.

    I first met Tom at the 2016 GLC when I almost accidentally cut in front of him at the bar at the final reception. He found out I was into communications work and we went out for drinks. Our friendship went from 0-100 in moments flat. Tom called it a “real Playa moment.” Maybe it was when he told me about his music box project, or maybe it was when he told me he hung out with the Rolling Stones, but I realized he was a master at everything that I wanted to do. I told him that night he was my mentor and to please teach me, but that wasn’t enough for him. He insisted on a reverse mentorship as well because that’s just the kind of guy he was.

    That year he invited me to attend Burning Man with him. He helped me get through the summer when I was too sick to work. He did everything in his power to make sure I could attend, even though I was broke and unemployed. He plugged me in and showed me the ropes. He introduced me to Burners Without Borders, Media Mecca, TEDx, and BMIR. He believed in me when nobody else would and my health rendered me barely functional. He made me part of the Burn Night broadcast team and it was just my third Burn. I watched that Burn by his side from the Inner Circle. Tom said he wanted to make it a yearly tradition. It turned out to be his last Burn and I consider it a high honor I got to share it with him.

    As we were walking back to camp after the Burn, Tom said to me and our Burn brother Jaxx, “I’m slowing down.” “We’ll continue your work for you,” I promised. That moment has been replaying in my head since I learned of his death last week. I still had a lot to learn, but I intend to live by that promise. Nobody’s ever done so much for me and the faith he placed in me helped me find my own inner strength. My life will forever be better because I had the chance to know Tom. I miss him and I’m saddened our time together was so brief, but I know that makes me extremely lucky I met him when I did. We were brothers because we shared a mission of forging communities through creative chaos. Now that mission is clear and I have Tom to thank for showing me the way. I intend to honor his memory by continuing that mission in his name. If I can do with with even half the style, joy, and enthusiasm he did, I’ll consider myself very lucky.

    Rest in peace, Lost Tom. May you raise hell with the devil and tell God he’s doing it wrong!

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    • BenJamanai says:

      Beautiful sentiments brother willie!
      Loved having you around this past journey and can’t get the image of you escorting him through conclave out of my mind. Thank you for your heart.

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  • Haggis says:

    No matter how frantic my day was (and they get pretty wacky) just being around Tom was a reset.
    There was a quiet calm about him that was profound and reassuring. His voice lulled you into a blissful theta state.
    He was going to interview me about the Man Base design process on the day he passed. It is an untrimmed thread that I need to resolve. We will have our last conversation in a quiet moment in the desert.

    I will aspire to “attain a higher state of Tom La Porte”.

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  • Pirate says:

    He was, indeed, the real deal.
    A gentleman scholar and a priveledge to know.

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  • Brandon (Hillbilly) says:

    I met Tom one night a couple years back at an event and ended up sitting next to him the rest of the night and morning as he regaled me with tales of his adventures, experiences, and achievements. He was a great and important person, and I’m glad I got to share the few moments I did with him.

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  • Downtown Dave says:

    Tom was a legend here in Chicago, a gentle giant, a gadly, and a respected community elder. So much of what has transpired here in Chicago over the last decade (at least) is because he helped start it.

    He will be sorely missed.

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  • Dave Pastore is still wondering if there’s gonna B a memorial service somewhere???
    He knew Tom for College Of DuPage days (the 70’s) when they were on the debate team.

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  • Andie Grace, Actiongrl says:

    My immense gratitude for this beautiful tribute to an incredible pillar of the community in the truest, giantest sense of the word. Tom, we will never forget you. My love to all who knew him.

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  • Carlos says:

    Once I got a present from Tom – a playa poster that is hanging on my wall for a few years now, in Lithuania.
    This year, I’m dedicating my eye installation to Tom LaPorte.
    I am glad I met You.

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  • Philamonjaro says:

    It is here in his passing that I coming to realize his direct impact on my own life. If it was not for Tom, I would not be the photographer I today. What is profound is that so many other people can make that same claim. I am sure that Tom’s legacy will live on as we embody your wisdom and creativity in bigger and bolder community activations.

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  • Stan Ryba says:

    I never met the guy, but did read some of his stuff. The world is a lesser place now. Go with the angles Tom. Our loss.
    Stan

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  • Derek Dudek says:

    Tom was my neighbor, mentor, and friend. We met while he was planning the Halloween Parade and worked together to coordinate and run that event. Part of the show was to have drag queen Frida Lay “kidnapped” by Rob Belushi’s “aliens” and taken to the roof of the vegan restaurant next to the 7-11 on Halsted, where they would perform ‘Keep Me Hangin’ On’. It was pouring rain that night and I wondered if we should check with Frida to see if she was still OK to climb up the (probably unauthorized) roof access ladder in her 8″ heels. In absolutely classic Tom LaPorte manner, he replied, “Eh, she already said yes once. Don’t give her an opportunity to change her mind.” We had many fun, if blurry, evenings featuring ideas that an outsider would think fanciful or grandiose, but nothing was impossible to Tom. His energy and enthusiasm knew no boundaries – in the same way that his connections seemed limitless. He always knew someone who could help in whatever area. While we physically parted ways once I left the neighborhood, and then the city, we always kept in touch. I will forever have his voice in my heart, “Fuck, man, we’re friends for life.” I love you and miss you, my friend. Thank you so much for this wonderful tribute and opportunity to share.

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  • Niel ..Slumdog says:

    Everyone could have a conversation with Tom, on almost anything – from something completely silly – to a heavily debated political viewpoint – what ever Tom had to contribute was worth listening to. What I found amazing about Tom was – his demands were very few, yet his contribution was beyond expectation….

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  • Jennie Kay says:

    Thank you so much for this beautiful tribute. Just when I can’t be any more awestruck with his greatness, I learn more. Thank you, Tom. RIP.

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  • DANA O'NEIL says:

    Beautiful tribute to Tom….We love you Tom and may we continue living out Toms legacy!

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  • U'Haul says:

    Our team, TEDxBlackRockCity, like many others on the Playa, will miss Tom immensely. He had that innate ability to show up when we were at wits end, and with a nod and a wink, solve our most pressing challenges in producing a thought leadership event on the Playa. Tom’s vision and clarity on big ideas was an inspiration, while his knowledge and connections in executing the small details was invaluable. He connected good people with good resources and created great outcomes, embodying and expanding the best principles of Burningman. Tom, we honor you for everything you stood for, on the playa and off. Burn brightly in your new realm.

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  • Lucky Luke says:

    I was inspired by Tom’s talk at Global Leadership Conference and we hit it off talking afterward and stayed in touch over text; I’d invite him to things. He was such a generous, awesome guy and a wealth of information. I had no idea he was Jim Belushi’s college roommate. Really sad to see a kindred spirit leave this world but my impression there was a guy who gave so much through his talents and creativity and left it a better place.

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  • $teven says:

    Dearest Tom, you were never really lost, though you liked to pretend. Thank you for your company and for suckering me into broadcasting from the playa and giving me the opportunity–despite my hesitation to breach the worlds–to speak my heart to those who were not with us in Black Rock City, but listening from elsewhere. It is in the same spirit that I speak with you now, from my heart, and hope you are listening: Well done, my friend. Well done. oxo

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