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Gone Racin' - Tom Medley's Celebration of Life

Gone Racin' - Tom Medley's Celebration of Life


Story by Richard Parks, photographs by Doug McHenry.  

     I never thought that I would see the day when we would lose Tom Medley, the iconic cartoonist who created Stroker McGurk.  But then I never thought we would lose Wally Parks, Robert E. “Pete” Petersen, Eric “Rick” Rickman, Ak Miller and a host of other hot rodders.  In their place we have their memories and those memories burn brightly.  It was only four years ago that Dick Martin held a special party for Tom in the same building; the Auto Club of Southern California Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Fairplex.  There have been so many other remarkable men and women who have passed on recently.  They were the first generation of the hot rodding movement.  Their ideas, ideals, creations and idiomatic speech and slang created the culture that we live in today.  We tweak it a bit here and there, but what these men and women did in the 1920’s, ‘30’s and ‘40’s is what we admire and emulate nearly a century later.  These early hot rodders came from the Great Depression Era and World War II.  They had very little in the way of material things and they had to make do with what they could find and improve on.  Nearly every community had a junk yard where someone’s refuse could be recycled and reused; old and yet new.  An inoperable car could be bought for five dollars and a running Model T for fifteen.  All that it took to put wheels under a young man was a few dollars and lots of elbow grease, some friends and a great deal of tinkering.

     Tom Medley was born in Oregon, in 1920.  His father went to the University of Oregon just like Tom’s only granddaughter, Sarah, did.  Though Tom took classes at the Art Center of Los Angeles, he was always an Oregonian.  He was fond of fishing, Oregon basketball and touring the back roads of America in his beloved 1940 Ford coupe with the deep maroon paint job.  He joined the military in World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, cold, lonely, desperate and deadly.  Ak Miller was there too, along with Johnny Ryan and Nellie Taylor.  Medley survived and returned home to Southern California and the car culture that he loved.  He also loved Rosemary, his wife and together they brought Gary, their son into the world.  Gary would bring Sarah, Tom’s only grandchild into his life and he loved his family dearly.  Tom also loved photography and drawing and bragged how wonderful life was; that he could make a living doing the things that he loved.  Medley was a land speed guy too and in the late 1930’s and ‘40’s he was out at the dry lakes with Lee Blaisdell, Rick Rickman, Ak Miller, Wally Parks, Pete Petersen and a host of other well-known hot rodding personalities.  Medley was part and parcel of those who created the hot rodding culture.  He drew cartoons that mildly poked fun at hot rodders.  Then one day he drew a personality based on him, the smart-alecky, fun-loving, try anything young kid who was bigger than his britches and named him Stroker McGurk.

     Stroker became Medley’s alter-ego and defined Tom Medley forever.  He could never separate himself from his cartoon character.  Medley was much more than Stroker was and yet Stroker McGurk was very flexible and fluid; elastic in a way.  Stroker was all of us rolled up in one.  Forever pushing the boundaries, stretching the limits of adult patience, stepping over the abyss and looking disaster in the face.  To some Stroker was just a cartoon character, but that’s false; Stroker McGurk was a real person if you look around and see hot rodders just like him.  Who did Tom Medley see in Stroker?  Was it himself, or Ak Miller or Joaquin Arnett and the Bean Bandits?  Medley never really told me or anyone else who he modeled Stroker on.  I don’t know that it matters because the personality of Stroker McGurk is exactly like every other hot rodder I have ever known, including Tom Medley himself.  Stroker could be young, foolish, brash, quick to make a judgment, idealistic and extremely creative.  Rules existed for Stroker to find a way around, not to follow.  Stroker lived life to the fullest, laughed until his belly rolled, felt chagrin and embarrassment for his faults and in the end we simply loved him.  He was us and we were him.  Medley had created the iconic character that defined an age and no other cartoonist had quite done that.  Comic characters allow our fantasies to thrive and the world would be a dreary and unlivable place if all we had was realism.  But comic book characters like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman have their limitations.  With them we can fly and bend steel with our bare hands, but we know that they are just fascinations of the mind.  Stroker McGurk was real, because in essence he was us, in fantasy and in reality.

     Tom Medley was chained to Stroker McGurk as his creation, but where some people resent their famous characters, Medley accepted his ties to his creation with ease and with amiable acceptance.  Tom would go on to work with the hot rodding culture as a writer, editor and co-founder of the Street Rod Nationals.  More than that he would become a National Treasure; sought after and emulated by those who loved the car culture as much as Tom did.  With Tex Smith and Ron Ceridono, Tom would write many books and tour the nation as a hot rodding ambassador.  He would hold court with the likes of Pete Petersen, Wally Parks, Alex Xydias, Pete Chapouris and hundreds more.  Tom would court other sports as well.  He was active in Karting and car shows and car clubs.  If it had wheels or a motor then Tom would photograph it and write on it or cartoon it.  Tom was the first person to conceive of using parachutes to slow down a car and when he drew that famous Stroker cartoon with the ‘chutes out the entire nation thought Stroker was nuts.  But after a few reflections people started to wonder, maybe that guy isn’t so crazy after all.  Today parachutes are standard equipment for cars going over 200 mph.

     My wife, Epi and I got to the museum around 1 pm on April 12, 2014 and in the parking lot there were dozens of hot rods just like Tom loved.  Inside the museum Larry Fisher and his staff helped Gary Medley set up the chairs and welcome the guests to his father’s Celebration of Life.  I met Dick Martin, Jim Miller, Ora Mae Millar, Robert Williams and his wife Suzanne, Pete Chapouris, Randy Clark and his staff, Greg Sharp, Doug McHenry, Sarah Medley (granddaughter), Gary Medley (son), Gary Meadors, Jack Chisenhall, Brian Brennan, David Freiburger, Bruce Bereiter, Darrell Mayabb, Ronny Hampshire, Don Zabel, Robin Medley (niece), Tom Otis, Fay Pearson, Irma and Steve Babagin, Kurt Gustafson, Pat Ganahl, Eric Pinn, Jim Travis, Jeff Smith, Carlo, Shannon, Addison and Colin Lofredo.  Tex Smith and Alex Xydias sent letters, and Jay Leno was on tape.  The program began at 1 pm sharp, with introductions and remarks by Gary and Sarah Medley, a slide show and the screening of the “Stroker” documentary.  The featured speakers were; Greg Sharp, Gary Meadors, Jack Chisenhall, Brian Brennan, Bruce Bereiter and Darrell Mayabb.  Following the speakers an open mike was passed around by Greg Sharp and many in the audience rose to offer their memories of Tom.  Then we were all treated to burgers, fries and milkshakes served by the Burger House from Pomona, California.  Tom’s favorite food was burgers, fries and ice cream. 

     Gary Medley spoke about his father. “My father was born in Lebanon, Oregon on March 20, 1920.  His father was working at a job for $5 a day and everyone worked in those days to put food on the table.  Everyone picked fruits and vegetables to can for the kitchen larder.  As a boy he was hooked on cars and soap box derbies.  My dad loved basketball and auto racing.  He went to high school in Salem and every Thursday he would hitchhike to see the midget races and he missed every Friday at school.  Dad played in four sports in college.  He met my mother Rosemary at a USO dance when he was in the military; 78th Infantry Division and she became the love of his life.  It was so crowded that he waited for the young ladies to exit the dance and met her outside.  He was a wonderful dancer.  His unit fought in the Battle of the Bulge where it was freezing and they burnt beautiful old furniture to stay warm.  The 78th Infantry was the first to cross the Rhine River into Germany during World War II.  He wrote passionately to Rosemary while he was overseas in the military during World War II.  He even included cartoons.  He loved to draw cartoons and his famous character was Stroker McGurk.  One cartoon of Stroker was the first to show a car being stopped by a parachute.  Pete Petersen saw his cartoons after the war and asked around to see who drew them.  He gave dad a job at Hot Rod magazine as a photographer and cartoonist.  He loved this job and it paid him to do what he loved doing.  He later worked with Tex Smith and Ron Ceridono at the Tex Smith Libraries.  A few years ago his beloved 1940 Ford coupe caught fire and burned in garage.  His personal papers were saved from the fire in trunks, but the car was ruined.  Randy Clark of Hot Rods and Customs in Escondido restored the car and hundreds of people sent in donations.  Tom said, ‘I have more friends than I thought.’  No one thought the car could be saved but Randy and his crew did an excellent job,” Gary concluded.

     Sarah Medley, Tom’s only grandchild, spoke about her love for her grandfather.  “My grandpa drew me in his cartoons as a child.  He was a source of light and happiness to everyone around him,” she told us.  Greg Sharp addressed the audience and welcomed us to the museum.  He told us what a great place the museum is to celebrate the history of hot rodding and people like Tom Medley.  We have photos here that Tom took over the years.  In 2004 we honored Tom at the California Hot Rod Reunion in Famoso, California.  Tom rarely ever got mad, but one time he and Eric Rickman were trying to explain to an editor who Sam Hanks was.  ‘You don’t know who Sam Hanks was?’ Medley yelled at this man.  ‘What kind of editor are you,’ Medley raged.  Tom was very protective of the hot rodding history and heritage.  It was my honor to be his friend,” Sharp ended.  Gary Meadors from GoodGuys was the next to speak.  “I’m not the GoodGuy your father was,” Meadors told Gary Medley.  “When I was a kid Stroker McGurk was my icon.  I was Stroker.  I cruised around like Stroker.  I want to thank Tom and Tex Smith for creating the first Street Rod Nationals.  Tex and Tom were my mentors.  When I formed GoodGuys I asked Tom if I could take the Stroker McGurk plaque from the NSRA with me to GoodGuys in Tom’s honor and he graciously agreed.  Tom is my icon,” Meadors said. 

     Jack Chisenhall was the next to speak and said, “Tom Medley was a great story teller and made friends everywhere.”  Jack went on, “Tom had a great time at everything he did and with everyone he met.  I want to thank Gary Meadors for keeping Tom involved in street rodding,” Chisenhall added.   “What people don’t know is that Tom was more than just a photographer and cartoonist.  He made advertisements for everyone in the trade.  Tom loved taking photos, big band music of the 1940’s, ice cream, college basketball, meeting people and so much more.  When Tom’s friends went into the military, he followed them.  He got into Go-Karting big time.  Another love of Tom’s was road tripping around the country and I went with him.  He was always prepared with lots of tools in case of a breakdown.  Tom was very close to Tex Smith and Ron Ceridono.  If anyone proposed a hot rod trip Tom was eager to go too.  Four years ago Dick Martin held a special party to honor Tom at this museum that we are in today.  Tom covered Karting, road races, dry lakes, oval track racing and much more for the magazines.  He made so many friends that when his beloved 1940 Ford coupe was destroyed that friends rallied to help him restore his car and Randy Clark and his crew from Escondido completely rebuilt the car.  What many people don’t know is that Tom wrote hot rod songs and had them recorded in 1951.  Scatman Carruthers sang the lyrics to ‘Drag it out,’ but Tom thought he left out a lot of the words.  He could remember the words and sing it whenever anyone asked him to,” Chisenhall reminisced. 

     Long-time editor, writer and photographer Brian Brennan was the next guest speaker.  “I would like to read a letter from Tom’s former boss and always friend, Tex Smith, who is in Australia and couldn’t be here today,” Brennan said.  “Tom and I were fishing buddies and I loved that guy.  He will always be my buddy first and foremost,” Tex said in his letter.  They first met back in the early 1950’s and were close friends and associates in the Street Rod Nationals, publishing, road trips, fishing and the car culture.  Bruce Bereiter spoke next.  “I knew Tom from the Ford Club and we were friends for many years.  I loved Stroker McGurk from Hot Rod magazine.  Tom was my hero and I was so grateful for the chance to hang around with him over the years.  He had lots of friends because he was able to give to people.  He just knew what to say to people to pick them up.  He was also a man of many words and the stories just flew out of his mouth with little to no prodding.  I never heard him say anything bad about anyone.  Tom had no pretenses; he was in person exactly what he was in his private life, open and honest.  He felt an obligation to his public and would come to a show early and stay late, signing autographs for everyone who asked him.  He personalized each photograph and signature, making it out to the person’s name and what was important to that person.  It made me tired just watching him.  He gave his time equally to everybody without playing favorites.  He felt he had a job to do to represent his sponsors and the car culture and he was serious about upholding his end.  He cared for all people.  When we went on road trips we always had to stop for ice cream.  That was his weakness.  Tom enjoyed road trips and singing along with the radio all the old 1940’s swing music played by the big bands,” Bereiter ended.

     Darrell Mayabb was an artist who was influenced by Tom Medley.  “In the early 1970’s I worked at Hot Rod magazine where I met Tom.  I knew his reputation and I was literally shaking.  He made me feel like I was the most important person at the magazine and put me at ease.  He told me to work and develop my talent at cartooning.  He really pumped me up and got me going in cartooning and told me that I listened well and was a good student.  When I got a commission for serious art the buyer found out that I was a cartooner and told me that he wouldn’t buy art from any cartoonist.  I created an alter-ego called C. Cruz, because I loved to see cruising.  That became my alias for my cartooning work and when I told Tom he laughed and told me that I was a fast learner.  I want to thank Randy Clark for restoring Tom’s 1940 Ford coupe after the fire.  Saving Tom’s car actually saved Tom’s life too and gave him a reason for going on,” Mayabb told the crowd.  Gary Medley read a letter from Alex Xydias who couldn’t be in attendance this day.  “If you want to know what Tom Medley was like just listen to his answering machine, which was like the military with name, rank and serial number.  Tom was no-nonsense.  When I left a message it was my name, phone number, message and YES SIR,” said old time friend Xydias.  “You may not know this but when I worked at Hot Rod magazine in the early days it was Tom Medley and Wally Parks who pulled all the pranks on the office staff.  Wherever Tom worked he put together a great staff under him and the list of great writers, photographers, editors was endless and their success well-known,” Xydias concluded in his letter.

     Robin Medley, Tom’s niece, spoke about the personal Tom Medley.  “We always loved seeing the family together.  All Medleys had to play and watch basketball or go fishing.  At Thanksgiving we would play Win, Lose or Draw and we would all cheat, but that never stopped my uncle from trying to beat us,” Robin laughed.  Tommy Otis, a pinstriper and friend said, “He was a fine man who loved his wife and family.  He was everybody’s granddad.  He made me feel so special.”  Faye Pearson said, “He was active in go-karting from the 1950’s and continued on faithfully in that sport.  I remember the time he called me up and said, ‘we’re going to Quincy, Illinois, get ready.’  I will miss him so much.”  Irma Babagin told us, “I was an assistant to Tom at Rod & Custom and worked on the Street Rod Nationals with him.  It was great to get away from the other editors and staff and work for Tom.”  Long-time friend Kurt Gustafson said, “He was my close friend and we spent many hours together playing with slot-cars and watching college basketball games.  He had a unique sense of humor and he was full of life.”  Magazine editor David Freiburger told us, “All my life I looked up to Tom, Wally Parks, Pete Petersen and my other icons.  Bob D’Olivo started up the Hot Rod magazine archives in 1955 to save a lot of the early work at the magazine and we can be thankful that he did that.  I met Tom at Rod & Custom magazine.  He was my hero.  I’d see him often, but Tom would never talk about the past; he was a man living in the present.”  Ora Mae Millar, Pete Millar’s widow, told me a story about Tom, “When my husband was first getting started as a cartoonist Medley told him, ‘Don’t quit your day job.’  We bought our first house with Pete’s cartoon earnings,” Ora Mae laughed.  Robert Williams, well-known hot rod artist, told me that Tom Medley was an inspiration to all cartoonists.  Williams said that he would never use an alias for his cartoon drawings, “Before Tom Medley cartooning was not held in the high esteem that it is held today.”

Gone Racin’ is at [email protected].