Barry Willis Remembers Randy Tomlinson

In a special guest Blog, erstwhile Stereophile and UAV contributor Barry Willis remembers Randy Tomlinson, his friend of over 25 years...

It's been a week since our friend Randy Tomlinson was killed in a plane crash. It's been a few days since I got the call from Shane Buettner delivering the news: "I hate to be the one to tell you . . ." His words still echo. It seems unbelievable that a guy so full of life and with so much left to give has been snatched away.

Yet his abrupt departure is somehow fitting, something we might have expected. He swore after dealing with his father's incurable brain tumor and the one that took our dear friend Chris Keeler that he would never linger in a hospital. He wanted to live life in its utmost intensity, right up to the final moment. He got that wish.

Randy was a complex guy, a bundle of contradictions. Politically, he was in far right field, of the Fox News/Hilary-Clinton-is-the-Antichrist school. "Liberal conspiracy" delivered under his breath in his South Carolina drawl was the stuff of Saturday Night Live sketch comedy. Yet he accepted individuals with all their idiosyncrasies in full bloom—the forthright out-of-the-closet dignity of our friend Chris, or the flamboyant eccentricity of engineer James Bongiorno, Randy's personal audio guru, with whom he argued incessantly. Randy was engaged in an ongoing unfinished quest to create the ultimate Ampzilla, a Bongiorno product from the '70s that became for Randy one of many perfectionist obsessions.

In his view, nothing ever came from the factory fully realized. After enormous research, he would decide on a new pair of loudspeakers, and after buying them through one of many deep-discount inside connections, soon have them completely dismantled for re-engineering. In the last such project he discussed with me, he had reworked a pair of Kevin Voecks' Revel speakers, managing to make them "sing like angels."

His perfectionism made him distrust authorities and experts—in a dismissive rather than paranoid sense. Randy didn't suffer fools gladly. He believed that anything worth doing was worth doing right, worth doing all the way. The world continued to disappoint him with slackers. He could count on one hand the number of mechanics and technicians he trusted. (I was pleased to know I'd made the cut. When he was doing a lot of pro sound work, I was one of only three people he trusted to work on his turntables, mixing boards, and power amps.) He did almost all his own mechanical and electronic and computer work, because no one else did it right. He had an innocuous-looking Volkswagen pickup truck that he used for work and daily driving, which he'd also tricked out for weekend racing during long Georgia summers. He took enormous delight in "dusting yuppies in their Porches and BMWs" with his stealth toy truck even if it meant rebuilding the engine after every race.

Then there was the Corvette. It appeared in his driveway one day, the result of some mysterious trade, neither recent enough to be considered new nor old enough to be a classic, just a big hunk of Detroit horsepower that had been driven hard enough to have developed a few rattles. Randy insisted that he was going to race the thing, despite its known preference for wide-open straightaways rather than hairpin turns. One night after a long hi-fi session and plenty of wine and other inebriants—we often joked that the real hi-fi story wasn't about what you put into your system, but what you put into yourself—we took the 'vette for a spin. I became simultaneously aware of what an intensely competent driver he was and of how little protection fiberglass offers against bridge abutments, trees and telephone poles.

His garage was—is, as far as I know—full of trophies from motocross racing, hundreds of them covering a career that spanned three decades. A lifelong athlete—he claimed to own the all-time record in the obstacle course at the Citadel, where he was an English major—he began to feel the encroachment of time in his aching joints and in races lost to younger riders. He took up mountain biking and bodybuilding as conditioning for motocross, and soon was as fully immersed in those pursuits as he was in cars, motorcycles, hi-fi, video, and computers. The ultimate gearhead! I would meet him to go riding near the Chattahoochee river, where he would hammer up hills at a pace that set my lungs afire, then tackle downhill runs with adolescent abandon, heedless of branches and exposed roots and sharp rocks.

"I'm hooked on anything that goes," he said. "That's my weakness."

Randy was notoriously cheap, but generous to his own detriment. He was famous for his refusal to pay Las Vegas hotel prices during the Consumer Electronics Show, where for years he insisted on staying at a youth hostel, far beyond passing as a youth. Paying retail grieved him. When he took up mountain biking, he became a Jamis dealer so that he could buy his bikes wholesale. He found ways to make his hobbies pay for themselves. His garage was a one-man factory where he built custom shock absorbers for other motocross racers, engineered to their body weights and riding styles. In an adjacent room he tweaked disc players and amplifiers. The upper floor of his house was crammed with review gear flat-panel and rear-projection TVs, few of which won his unqualified approval.

His perfectionism made everything he touched something special and desirable. His modified JVC compact disc players are still sought by audiophiles as some of the best sounding ever. He bitched and groaned about how much time he spent making everything perfect and how he could never charge enough, but being too kind, was always reluctant to ask for payment. Friends took advantage of his expertise, knowing that he'd work for days if need be. I admit that I benefited too—he spent weeks rebuilding a big Suzuki cruiser I bought on a whim, charging me only for out-of-pocket expenses like having it painted. When he was done that motorcycle looked like new and ran like a precision Swiss sewing machine. He helped me design and install an overbuilt disco-level sound system for the new Georgia Tech Strength Center and took only a 10% markup on the equipment. He did major work on my SUV before I left Georgia for California, a gift for good luck.

I'm probably one of dozens of friends who were blessed by Randy's talents and largesse. Most of them I never met because he kept his interests compartmentalized. In fact, I probably knew him better than most because we had so many overlapping interests. There was so much about him that remained private—especially his relations with women, of whom one reputedly had once threatened marriage. While browsing through his books, I came across a first edition by Pat Conroy, a Citadel classmate. Inscribed inside: "To Randy, who was always better than I was." I'll always feel that way too, especially after the heroic care that Randy gave Chris Keeler during his last months. Randy was stoic about expressing it, but magnanimous about sharing his love.

Randy paid meticulous attention to diet and exercise and all health matters—he chided Tom Norton for his elevated cholesterol levels—but went for high-risk sports like there was no tomorrow. Last Saturday, that proved true. In February 2001, after NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt was killed in a race, there was an outcry for more safety regulations, for a crackdown on risk. Car and Driver editor-at-large Brock Yates wrote a splendid response in the Wall Street Journal, in which he asked: who among us is lucky enough to make a painless exit doing what he loves?

Randy Tomlinson was lucky enough to do that. I only hope that he was lucky enough to be knocked unconscious before the little plane exploded in flames. No one will ever know. I do know that I'll always regret that I'll never again tumble into his guest bed after a late late night, that I'll never again hopelessly chase him on one of those blistering bike rides, that I'll never again get to sit across the table and chuckle while he rants about the stupidity epidemic. I loved the guy in all his quirkiness and obstinacy, in all his opinionated obsessive brilliance. I'll miss him every day for the rest of my life.

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David Vaughn's picture

Barry, thank you for sharing your love and friendship with Randy. Even though I didn't know the man personally other than a few words exchanged through emails, I know now how much I would have enjoyed his company. Best wishes, David.

Virginia Herring Saunders's picture

Dear Barry, Your description of Randy was about as accurate as they get. I laughed and I cried when I read it. I have known Randy for 40 years and shared many life experiences with him. He was a wonderful person who was a mentor to many youths. He taught my oldest son defensive driving in a course at the Atlanta Motor Speedway and mentored my youngest through his freshman year at The Citadel. He was their Point Man in life and they are still reeling from the news. He loved The Citadel,there is discussion of starting a scholarship in his name and his classmates are planning a memorial service. He totally immersed himself in whatever he did with a conviction and level of integrity that is so rare today. I think that is what made him stand out from others because it was a rare quality recognized only by those who know. No matter what field, what arena, what stage....his passions were his life. He pursued them with gusto all the way to the end.No regrets.He was loved by so many people, because he loved us all.

Terry Shave's picture

Barry, Thank you for the nice words about Randy. He was one of the best friends I have ever had. His loss will leave a void that can never be filled as he was one of a kind. I will never forget the memories I have of us racing motorcycles or chasing each other on mountain bikes until we were both about to pass out.There were also the pull up contest in his garage and the multiple rope climbing challenges in his front yard, both of which I would always lose to him. His last memorie of me was, I hope, a good one as he kicked my butt at the motorcycle track. He always took great pleasure in doing that. I have never met anyone else in my life who who did so much for those in the time of need. He influenced me more than he would ever know and for that he will be forever missed.

John C. Eiden, Jr.'s picture

Barry,thank you for your words about Randy,as they are so true.It is very evident you knew him well.We met in Aug .'64 as forthclassmen and fellow English majors at The Citadel.Those years bring back a flood of memories as Randy being the audiofiend he was would crank up"we got to get outta this place"after Fri.parade for the entire 4th battalion;racing his GTX against T Co's 1st sergeant over the Ashley R.B.and cruising thru the Piggy Park using his home-built PA system on choice females.Randy also played a very evident role in the lives of 3 of our 5 sons that graduated from our alma mater, JJ,Mike & Matt.Yes, our Matt too was challenged by Randy on The Citadel's O'course.Randy was the victor as I recall that day.My last conversation with Randy was on the Friday before his untimely accident, asking for some advice on purchasing some flat screen TV's.I am thankful to our Lord for giving me the opportunity to have spoken with this memorable classmate and friend whom I will always

Joel Silver's picture

Barry, permit me to add my thoughts to yours. Randy went into video with us at the ISF precisely like you described his other passions - at 120%. Our early conversations about his drive to find a true reference tool, and my abuse of automobiles were the beginings of a fine friendship - I will miss our talks, his feedback, and our visits to Atlanta will never be forever saddened without him by my side in our classrooms - our world has suddenly become smaller. Joel

milton garner's picture

Randy was 39yrs old when I met him and I was 25yrs old.He had the same interest that I had, going fast whether in a car motorcycle or bicycle.I never had much interest in the audio or video part of his life but i do know in detail the things Barry has spoken .Randy was a pefectionist in the things he cared for.We raced two races in Ala in May ,Randy was on his game at both of these races .My son also raced for the first time at this race,Randy was so proud to see him do very well.Ive shared many life and death moments with Randy in cars on the streets and Road Atlanta .His driving skills always surpased mine.Randy and spent countless hours chasing each other on dirtbikes whether on the track or trails.Racing will never be the same ever.My life without Randy will continue but with an broken spirit.Randy and I had a friendship of trust and respect ,we only had a few disagreements but we never comprimised a life long friendship .Randy was my mentor and best friend. I love you Randy!!! Milton Garner

Dr. Richard MacDonald's picture

I knew Randy from the earliest days of The Citadel Summer Camp for Boys where he excelled in many roles, as you would expect-given his athletic abilities, imagination and incredible leadership. I knew Randy for about 45 years--really a long time--I was a cadet, then he was a cadet later, and we worked at that Camp, and I went to med school and he went to Viet Nam, and life rolled along. As a cadet and medical student, I was associate organist at The Citadel-and Randy loved that organ. When he came home from Viet Nam, or was ever in Charleston, I can still remember those evenings in the chapel--me playing away, and Randy walking around--always excited to hear/record the biggest sounds. He developed into his great expertise in the audio industry and I became a Dr. and medical school Dean. Last year, Randy discovered a friend of ours we had not seen in decades--and his magic just caused a connection as if we had never been apart. Barry-thank you for capturing the complete sense and spirit of this beautiful man

R. J. Reda's picture

While I didn't know Randy remotely as well as some of the others that have posted here, I am still incredibly saddened by this news. Over the past several years, Randy has calibrated a few of my sets here in Atlanta (as well as some of my friends' sets after they saw what kind of work he did at my house). During this time, I was fortunate enough to get to know him, even just a little bit, while I spent hours staring at test patterns, sipping on beer. Randy was a consummate professional who not only made TVs looks beautiful when he was done, but would also indulge me in my myriad of questions regarding gear. Any time I was about to make a big purchase, I'd run it by Randy to hear what he thought. He always returned my e-mails without fail regardless of how busy he was. I always felt like he was the ace up my sleeve when it came to advice on electronics. Reading about how full of a life he led apart from what little I knew about him makes this loss even more difficult. He most certainly will

Finklea Tomlinson's picture

Thanks everyone for your endearing comments. It has been a difficult summer for all that knew Randy well. There is a very big gap in my universe now as he was my only living relative. He was a wonderful big brother for 53 years. FT

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