OBITUARY

Thomas "Tom" Earl York, Jr.

November 30, 1923August 1, 2021
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Tom York, whose morning program dominated Birmingham television from the 1950s until 1989, died on August 1. He was 96 years old.

York was born November 30, 1924 in Holland, Missouri. His family was poor and worked on a farm in southern Indiana. In the depths of the Great Depression, they left the farm and moved to Florence, Alabama, where an uncle owned a used-furniture store that they could live above. Economic salvation came when York's father, Earl, got a job with the new Tennessee Valley Authority, giving the family some small financial stability it had never had before.

York had just turned 17 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Even though he was underage, he convinced his father to allow him to enlist in the Navy. (His mother opposed the idea.) As a young sailor, York bounced around the country in training and became an airman/radioman/gunner on what was known as the SBD Dauntless dive bomber. His real introduction to World War II came when he arrived on the Pacific atoll of Tarawa in late November, 1943, just as one of the toughest, most costly battles of the entire war was ending. York was part of a Navy force occupying Betio, the main island in the atoll. He also served on other islands in the Gilbert and Solomon chains.

York returned to Florence after the war, still just 21 years old. He later believed that period was the turning point of his life. Looking back, he felt that before the war, he was headed for a life of limited horizons and equally limited accomplishments in Florence. But as a returning veteran, with the GI Bill, he was persuaded -- by an old girlfriend -- to go to college. It was there that two things happened that would change his life. At what was then known as Florence State Teachers College -- now the University of North Alabama -- he met his future wife, Helen Hamilton, and he got a job in radio.

York often told the story of the day when, still taking classes, he was driving in his car, listening to a disc jockey from a local Florence station. As he listened, he happened to pass the studio and said to himself, "I can do better than that." He stopped, went in, asked for a job, and got one. Indeed, he could do better than that.

From that moment on, he began to develop the on-air persona -- a deep, resonant voice coupled with an informal manner -- that drew listeners in. They liked him. As it turned out, York had a gift for connecting with people that took him from radio to television and all through life. And in the beginning, he learned radio from the ground up; one year, he earned an extra $25 -- a large sum at the time -- for climbing the station's tower to change the light bulb.

On Christmas Eve, 1947, after finishing his radio program, York married Helen Hamilton. (He made a recording of the ceremony and pressed it on an old 78 rpm record.) A year later, they had their first child, Karen, now Karen Moore. They moved to Memphis, where York broke into television. Later came another child, Byron. Not long after came an opportunity to move to WBRC-TV in Birmingham, in the city he would make his home for the rest of his life.

"The Tom York Morning Show" came about almost by happenstance. In 1957, the station lost its morning program, creating a one-hour gap in the schedule. The general manager asked York if he could fill the hour -- nothing more specific than that. York said yes, and began to create a program that was at its heart about Birmingham. It had news, information, and entertainment, always from a Birmingham perspective. Viewers who wanted a national program could watch the "Today" show on another channel. But many more of them, at least twice as many at any given time, chose "The Tom York Morning Show." York's creation dominated the ratings for more than three decades.

York loved Birmingham and Alabama. He wanted the city and the state to grow, to prosper, to succeed. He united viewers behind plans for new institutions, for education, for civic development. He suffered when the city went through some terrible years in the Civil Rights era.

He created things. He founded the Birmingham Touchdown Club during the great era of football rivalry between the University of Alabama and Auburn University. And in 1969, he helped found the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, emceeing its annual induction ceremony for decades. In 1996, he was himself inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 2001, he published "The Story of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame: A Personal Perspective." York was always proud and amazed at how many great sports figures had Alabama roots. The book was a tribute to them, with behind-the-scenes stories mixed in, like the night in 1970, at the second induction, when one of the honorees -- the former Alabama coach Hank Crisp -- collapsed and died at the cocktail reception immediately before the ceremony was to begin. Everyone, including the emcee, collected their wits and the show went on.

All the while, "The Tom York Morning Show" ruled local television in Birmingham. York became a legend to multiple generations of Alabamians. People who had grown up watching the program before school in the 1960s had children who watched the program before school in the 1980s. Tom York was easily the most beloved, and believed, figure in Birmingham media. He remained so even after, in 1989, at the age of 65, he retired and left WBRC. As many predicted, the show did not survive the departure of its founder and host. "The Tom York Morning Show" simply did not work without Tom York.

York would never have predicted that he would live for 32 years after retirement. He did some writing, some radio, some TV programs, and more. He and Helen traveled. He was astonished, as a veteran of flying on the old, super-slow Dauntless, when he crossed the Atlantic in just a few hours on the supersonic Concorde.

Mostly, he found deep affection and respect in Birmingham. Everywhere he went, people came up to him and thanked him for his time on television. They felt a sense of personal attachment to him going back many years. They were happy to see that he was still around. In his later years, he loved to wear a black "World War II Veteran" cap. Seeing it, people thanked him for his service, especially grateful to see a veteran of the war still among them.

In the last couple of years, he slowed down, as was inevitable. He and Helen moved into Kirkwood by the River, where their time was cheered by kind and compassionate caregivers, as well as by his devoted niece Lisa, who moved to Birmingham to help. He knew the end was coming, and he was satisfied by having lived a good life. On Sunday morning, he died in his sleep, of simple old age. Of course he will be missed by his family and those closest to him. But he will also be missed by many, many more, the people who felt that he was part of their families, too.

York is survived by his wife Helen, and children Karen and Byron.

In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Tom York Scholarship Fund at the Advancement Office of Samford University, 800 Lakeshore Drive, Birmingham, AL 35229.

Services

PREVIOUS SERVICES:

  • Friends and Family are Cordially Invited to a Time of Visitation

    Thursday, August 5, 2021

  • A Memorial Service to Honoring the Life of Tom York

    Thursday, August 5, 2021

OTHER SERVICES:

  • A Reception Will Follow the Service

Memories

Thomas "Tom" Earl York, Jr.

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Tony McBride

August 4, 2021

At the Cahaba Valley Church of Christ, Tom lived by the clock on Sundays just like on the weekdays at WBRC. At 11:30 the service was over and Tom was leaving; In fact, many of us agreed with him. I sometime grin thinking about those Sundays...a fond memory.

Don Leo

August 4, 2021

Thank you Tom for all the wonderful memories that you have left us with as I grew up with you as a young man in Birmingham Alabama. I also want to thank you for your service as a young man in World War II and trying to preserve our wonderful country. You have brought a lot of joy to a lot of people over your life and your family should be very proud of that and everything that you had accomplished. May you rest in peace sir and thank you for all the wonderful memories and hopefully a lot of people can read this and can strive to be a wonderful gentleman like you were.

Christy Putman

August 4, 2021

My condolences to the family.
I had the pleasure of meeting Tom & Helen in 2011 where I was working a part time job at the Diplomat Deli in Vestavia. They came in almost every Saturday evening after walking at the Rec Center. They shared a glass of wine & sandwich & spoke often about their children & how proud they were of their accomplishments.
May God comfort the family in this time of loss.

Christy

Patti Tucker

August 3, 2021

Helen, Karen and Byron,
I am so sorry for the loss of Tom. I have such great memories of him. He was always so very sweet anytime I was around. He had such a good heart and a loving soul. My parents loved him. I hope the 3 of them are having a grand time in heaven.
Love to all,
Patti Nabors Hayley Tucker

Sherry Broussard

August 3, 2021

My sincere condolences to Karen and Byron, and Helen. He was "Mr. Birmingham" and I was so proud to know him and visit during my teen years in the home. What great memories I have of him as a wonderful individual on the "Tom York Morning" show. He is definitely a one of a kind who loved what he did. May his memories give you comfort during this time. Love you all

Tommy Gloor

August 3, 2021

I was blessed to have known Mr. York. I will never forget the great times and chats we had. I cherish spending my birthday with him and Mrs. York a few years ago. Until we meet again, Godspeed and thanks for everything, Mr. York.

William? Thomas

August 3, 2021

I am a 60's viewer of Tom and Pat and Chicken Fat . When Clutch Cargo came on I left for school . RIP

Carol Hardin Smith

August 3, 2021

Karen,
I just wanted to let you know how sorry I am to hear about the passing of your dad. You and your family will be in our prayers. Sending love to you and praying for comfort and peace.

Muffet Waters

August 3, 2021

In 1965, my father wanted to open a camp. Mr. York was there before opening day to film EVERYTHING. He even went horseback riding with a bunch of us! He'd try anything.. Over the next 50 years seeing him was always an honor. After high school he insisted I start calling him Tom. RIP Mr. York! You did good down here!😊🙌

Tammy Grier

August 2, 2021

My deepest sympathy to the York Family.I could remember growing up as a child,watching Mr York on television.I would watch him every morning before getting dressed for school. I had the pleasure of spending time with him,and his wife at Kirkwood by the River.He was so sweet,and loving to the love of his life Ms Hellen.RIH Mr York!

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