Left, rheumatoid arthritis cruelly crippled the hands — but not the spirit — of David "Too Tall" Thompson. Right, a portrait of Too Tall by Springfield artist George Milne. (Photos contributed)

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Springfield encompasses several small communities of individuals linked by common interests or goals or circumstances. Professional organizations, church congregations, civic clubs, hobby groups, etc. Some are well-known — Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, League of Women Voters, James River Basin Partnership and so on — with prominent names on the membership rosters.

However, some communities-within-our-community are lower profile, such as the “12-step programs” — Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Their members often go only by first names or by nicknames — Scott G, Lloyd L, One-Arm Jack, Heart Attack Jim, Lawnmower Jim, Wild Bill, Hardhead, Catfish, Painter Mark, Cadillac Bob, Bicycle Bill.

David James “Too Tall” Thompson

Those members are mourning the loss of one of their own right now…

His given name was David James Thompson, but everyone knew him as Too Tall due to his lanky 6-foot-5 frame.

He died May 11 at age 75. But he is likely to be remembered for a long while as a faithful mentor and encouraging role model for many here who, during the past 40 years, have turned to AA or NA for help in overcoming addictions and who leaned on Too Tall for support.

There will be a celebration of life gathering for David “Too Tall” Thompson on Sunday, May 29, from 5 to 8 p.m. at Living Memorial Park, 4323 S. Nature Center Way, in the north pavilion.

Rick Matz (aka Hawaiian Shirt Rick because of his wardrobe, or Santa Claus Rick because of his flowing white mane and beard) knew Too Tall for three decades and became especially close with him in recent years, serving as a frequent chauffeur and general helper as rheumatoid arthritis hobbled Too Tall.

“I have a pickup truck that was handy for hauling Too Tall’s wheelchair,” says Matz. “At least a couple times a week I’d take him to a 12-step meeting, plus to special functions — if there was a function with food, we probably were going to be there.

“His hands became so gnarled up with the arthritis that he was no longer able to work a computer or cell phone. So if any technology was involved, I was sort of his scribe.”

Too Tall’s apartment patio deck was brightened by colorful blooms. (Photo contributed)

‘Strong, strong commitment to recovery'

Despite his mounting physical challenges, Too Tall remained “very, very active until the pandemic hit,” Matz says. “His mentorship mostly was demonstrating commitment to the 12-step programs. He did his best to continue in that role as long as he could. Everybody that I’ve talked to since he passed has mentioned his strong, strong commitment to recovery.”

In their many conversations, Matz learned of Too Tall’s extraordinary early years:

“Too Tall said he had a really good life until his parents were killed in a car wreck when he was 12. He became a ward of the State of Minnesota, where they lived. At that time, Minnesota didn’t have a foster care system, he said, and so he was sent into the reform school system.

“Although he was a tall kid for his age, he was a small kid in there. And he had a rough go of it. Finally a staff member who’d been a boxer in the military taught him how to box, and he started lifting weights to help himself get stronger.

“He told me they had seven different reform schools in Minnesota, and he escaped from every one of them. The last one he was in was actually a logging camp in the far northern part of the state. They figured it was too far away from anything to run away (from).

“But one night the cook came back to camp for something, and he left his snowmobile running while he went into the cookshack. Too Tall saw an opportunity, put on all the clothes he could put on, grabbed a couple of candy bars he had in his locker, and drove away on that snowmobile. He went until it ran out of gas.

Boxcar led to carnival life and bad habits

“There was a railroad yard nearby, and he climbed into a boxcar to get out of the wind. Next thing he knew, the boxcar started moving. He just stayed in that boxcar; he didn’t know what else to do. He didn’t know where they were going, but he knew they were heading south because it started getting warmer.

“He ended up in Louisiana. When the train finally stopped and Too Tall had a chance to get out of the boxcar, he was across the road from the winter quarters of a small carnival. He went over and asked if he could work for food. They let him work for food for a few days. Then the couple who owned and operated the carnival just took him in. They effectively parented him and protected him and taught him the carnival business.”

Matz says Too Tall was 14 years old at the time he hooked up with the carnival. As his height zoomed past 6 feet, fellow carnies hung the nickname on him. They also imparted some bad habits, he told Matz.

“Too Tall said he’d started drinking as soon as he got into the carnival world, and he also used drugs, even heroin. There was a tremendous amount of amphetamine use to keep everybody moving. They’d roll into a town in the morning, get everything set up and operate the carnival that afternoon and evening. Then they’d break it all down again and load it back onto their trucks, drive all night to the next town and do it all over again. That was his world.”

After a half-dozen years of that grueling grind, Too Tall decided to join two carney pals about his age who’d decided to join the Army. He went with them to the recruiting office, and then for the pre-induction physical exam.

“The doctor saw evidence of drug use, needle marks on his arms,” says Matz. “The doctor figured out what was going on and turned him down. Too Tall was ashamed to go back to the carnival and tell his step-parents what had happened. So instead he headed to California, to San Francisco.”

A roadie for the Grateful Dead

It was 1967, the legendary “Summer of Love” with a flourishing hippie culture. The air was filled with music and the scent of patchouli and marijuana.

“Bands were giving shows for free in parks,” Matz says. “Too Tall was walking through a park one day and he saw some of the Grateful Dead crew having trouble getting heavy speakers onto the top of their bus. Too Tall had grown up wrestling all kinds of heavy rigging in the carnival, and was a pretty stout guy. So he went over and, being 6-5, he just set the speakers up on the bus.”

The crew was impressed. He hung out with them and became a roadie for the Grateful Dead. He got especially friendly with one of the musicians, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the Dead’s original keyboardist and harmonica player, who introduced Too Tall to Bill Graham, impresario of the celebrated Fillmore West music venue in San Francisco. Graham poached Too Tall to work backstage at the theater.

The next year Too Tall went to New York City with Graham to help set up and operate the Fillmore East there. He assisted with the logistics of shuttling bands to and from 1969’s fabled Woodstock music festival in rural upstate New York. But he was cut loose when the Fillmore East closed in 1971.

“He went back to carnival work,” recounts Matz, “but his addictions had progressed quite a bit. Somewhere in Minnesota he got crossways with the cops. He was on some hallucinogenic and was standing in front of a fire station when a call came in. The station doors opened up and the firetrucks started up with flashing lights and sirens — and Too Tall thought they were dragons.

“The result was that he ended up in a state hospital. They finally figured out that he had an addiction situation and they put him in an alcohol treatment ward. He got sober again, and was introduced to AA by a priest at the hospital who read to him out of the AA manual about the 12-step program. After about a year and a half, they said he was good to go out on his own.

“He’d been getting paid for working around the hospital, and he’d saved enough to buy a vehicle. He stayed in Minnesota and worked for a wrecker company, but it eventually went out of business. He heard there was work in Nebraska and he headed that way.

“He was at a truck stop to eat when he heard there was a lot of work available in Branson, Missouri. It was winter, and Branson sounded warmer than Nebraska, so he changed course and came down here. That was in 1978 or ’79.

Started going to AA meetings in Branson

“He found work, and he started going to AA meetings in Branson — but they were all on weekdays, and he could only get to a few of them because of his jobs. He was concerned about having too much spare time on the weekends. He was afraid he might drift back into drinking.”

Matz said someone in Branson told Too Tall about a place in Springfield called the Alano Club. It was on Walnut Street just west of Campbell Avenue, and was shared by AA and the Al-Anon organization that helps families and others affected by association with alcoholics. Too Tall was told that there were activities at the club every day, including on weekends.

“So that Friday he drove up to Springfield, walked into the club and just fell in love with the place and the people. His weekly schedule became he would come here on Friday night after work, park his van — which he’d rigged up to live in — in the club’s lot and stay there all weekend. He’d attend meetings and other activities. And if they needed coffee made or the floor swept or whatever, he was right there. Then he’d go back to Branson for the work week.

“One of the people he met at the Alano Club was One-Arm Jack. When he’d get off work in Branson during the week, he’d go to the bank and get $20 worth of quarters. He’d located an isolated phone booth, and he’d go there and plug those quarters into that pay phone and listen to Jack read him the AA manual. Too Tall had a copy of the book, and he’d try to follow along as Jack read to him. He learned to read some that way.”

In the early 1980s Narcotics Anonymous became established in Springfield, and Too Tall began splitting his time and sharing his experiences at both AA and NA sessions. Eventually he decided to move from Branson to Springfield to increase his involvement with those organizations.

“He was totally successful in maintaining his sobriety,” Matz assures. “He moved up here to be able to more fully immerse himself in recovery, including for others.”

For instance, twice a week he’d go to Schweitzer Church on East Sunshine Street where NA meetings were held in the church’s Hoffman Annex. Too Tall would arrive an hour and a half before the start of the meetings, set up tables and chairs, make coffee, put out literature and do anything else required to have the room ready when the 12-step participants arrived.

Too Tall sought to encourage healthy physical activity among youngsters by developing an indoor exercise board game in the hope that it would help keep kids from having too much idle time in which to fall into bad habits. (Photo contributed)

Game reflected passion for helping kids

He also developed and tried to promote an indoor children’s exercise game he called Jawg N-Block. Technicians at Springfield commercial printing outfit ColorGraphic patiently worked with Too Tall to transform his painstakingly hand-drawn designs into professionally produced game pieces. 

“That game was a passion of his, truly it was,” says Matz. “He asked me to see if the Shriners would adopt it for their children’s hospitals.”

A side-effect of his ongoing treatment for the worsening rheumatoid arthritis further complicated his physical challenges. Prescribed medication that eased the pain of the arthritis also weakened his immune system. And about eight years ago, infection from a blister on his foot quickly developed into gangrene, necessitating amputation of his left leg below the knee.

Longtime friend Scott Green helped relocate Too Tall from a second-floor apartment to a ground-floor unit on Norton Road that could be easily accessed with his wheelchair. “He even lived with me for three weeks,” says Green. “That’s one of the things we do — we help one another out.”

That attitude is what attracted Green to Too Tall when they first met 17 years ago: “He was very confident, and very much about helping others.”

Lloyd Lay knew Too Tall even longer — 27 years. “He was a friend not just to me but to my wife and our kids. We’d go out to dinner together (Golden Corral was a favorite), take the kids to the zoo and to Bass Pro, go grocery shopping, all sorts of family stuff. He really was like one of the family.”

Lay chuckles when recalling antics at the supermarket: “He was a character. We’d put my kids in two shopping carts, and then we’d race and play smashup derby. The kids loved it.

“But the best thing about Too Tall was his unconditional love. He never pressured anyone — but if you needed help, he was right there for you.

“Nobody who knew him is ever going to forget him.”

Mike O'Brien

Mike O'Brien is a longtime newspaper reporter, editor and columnist who had a long career at the Springfield News-Leader. He also is a college journalism educator in Springfield and has produced the Lives Remembered series of feature obituaries for the Daily Citizen. Email him at obriencolumn@sbcglobal.net. More by Mike O'Brien