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?’”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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)