Ask anyone at the Lunds & Byerlys grocery store on West 50th Street and they’ll tell you there’s a little less joy in the place of late, a void left by the familiar sight and sound of Tom Omodt bagging groceries, smiling sweetly, talking about the weather, asking about the kids or how the game went and basically providing the kind of service that put countless out-the-door skips in the steps of grocery shoppers for three decades.
“There’s a hole there,” said Lunds manager Kevin Lee, of the recent retirement of Omodt, a fixture at Lunds for almost 31 years. “It’s not hard to find a bagger, but it’s hard to find a Tom. We hire a lot of 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds and they’re great, they serve a purpose. But they don’t always connect that way and become an institution.”
On Feb. 16, friends and family gathered at St. Thomas The Apostle Church in Linden Hills to pay tribute to Tom’s remarkable career. Lunch and cake were served, and the guest of honor took a moment to reflect on his long run as the face of Lunds.
“I like the customers a lot,” Omodt said. “I’d see the customers every day, a lot of them were regulars. I liked talking about what they bought, especially if it was something I liked, too. Some of them I got to know really well.”
Few and far between are the places we can drop in on to find a familiar friendly face — a barista, bartender or barber — but Omodt has filled that role with grace and provided Lunds with an organic human touch.
“I just like helping people,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always liked —helping people. It just helps me stay emotionally stable, being able to see people and be with people. I had 30 years in, and thought that was pretty good.”
Tom’s brother Paul, one of Tom’s six siblings, helped organize the retirement party.
“Tom lives with schizophrenia and he does it very well, and it’s not easy,” Paul said. “He doesn’t drive, so he relies on a community of people to help support him, and for me as his brother, that’s the coolest thing to see. Because at a certain point, the family can’t always be there 24-7, but the slack gets picked up by friends at church, friends at Lunds. It’s just become this thing that’s been woven together. It’s an ‘It takes a village’ approach where strangers became friends, friends became family. He’s been very supported, and it’s been a two-way thing, because he’s a very friendly, social person.”
It also speaks to something like small-town living in the big city.
“It’s true,” said Paul. “We grew up in South Minneapolis, our dad was [late Hennepin County Sheriff Don Omodt], and seven of us went to Southwest High School, so people who you’d know from the park, or high school, or sports, they’d see Tom waiting for the bus and my high school friends would see him and give him a ride. It’s a little thing, but it’s a cool thing.”
“I had some struggles along the way,” Tom said.
“When he did have struggles, Lunds was pretty good about it,” Paul said.
“They were!” Tom said.
“They were very good about encouraging him to go and sit,” Paul said. “‘It’ll be OK, and let’s call one of your siblings.’ I think Lunds has been a fantastic employer.”
“I had a few times when the manager gave me a ride home because I wasn’t getting myself back together,” Tom said. “I just thought that was so nice, that a man would take time out of his day to do that.”
“To have a supportive employer has been everything,” Paul said. “The medication slows him down. A job helps because it gives him a purpose, social interaction, a circle of friends, which he really has found at Lunds, and it gives him a support system. There’s no rhyme or reason as to when symptoms come on. He could be fine for six months, and the next day something goes off.
“He has been hospitalized three or four times in the last few years, and every time Lunds said, ‘Don’t worry, your job is here when you get back.’ So that takes off the stress and gives him something to look forward to. Lunds, give them all the credit. The first time they could have said ‘bye- bye’ but they didn’t.”
Last month, Lunds finally said “bye-bye” to Tom, but his legend lives on.
“It was really great working with Tom,” said Lee, the Lunds manager. “He’s one of the kindest guys I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked at nine stores. … There were customers who would not go through other [checkout] lines, they would only go through Tom’s line. It was bittersweet for him to retire, because he spent so much time here with this company.”
For his next act, Tom is looking forward to volunteering at St. Thomas church, the Linden Hills Library and Linden Hills Park and continuing his membership at Vail Place, which provides a clubhouse-style approach to mental illness.
“Forty years ago when Tom was diagnosed, mental health was not talked about,” Paul said. “Now we’re living at a time when it can be talked about, and I think that’s really important. You don’t know who has a mental health issue and who doesn’t, and the fact that we can all be kind to each other makes a huge difference. Social connections are so crucial.
“Tom may have schizophrenia, but it doesn’t define him, and his friends, neighbors and the community haven’t allowed it to limit him. His success was a collective success of a community that gave as much to Tom as he did to those he met. In these days of so much division in our society, it’s nice to be reminded that there is a pretty amazing community right here that opened their arms to a neighbor.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.