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Saturday, June 14, 2003

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Missoula fixture Tommy the Leprechaun dies
By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian

The man known as Tommy the Leprechaun died Friday at his home in Hillside Manor in Missoula.

Tommy, whose real name was Terry Beard, was 53.

For more than a decade, he was a regular fixture of Missoula's downtown streets. In a big green hat and black boots, he'd greet people with riddles, balloon animals and occasional magic tricks. When the sidewalks were sparse, he'd sit with a battered guitar and belt out "If I Had a Hammer" or other folk songs, strumming with a thumbless right hand. He'd hand out business cards good for one free wish, and command his surprised audiences to have a "phantasmagorical" day.

"I don't know if I can tell my bartender about it - she'll bust out crying," said Jane Bergman at the Oxford Bar in downtown Missoula "Tommy was pretty much a fixture here."

The Leprechaun said someone at the Oxford made him his green suit, which he last wore as grand marshal of the St. Patrick's Day Parade this March. Kirsten Holm at Hillside Manor said she was hoping the Oxford might like to have it and a memory box of Tommyabilia the staff had gathered.

The Leprechaun picked up odd jobs like window washing, street sweeping and other tasks to make money, and he typically refused donations in return for the balloon creations he made for people.

For the past year, he had been suffering from emphysema brought on by a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. His mother, Bonnie Winkle, said he planned to donate his body to science.

"He got such a big charge out of making balloons and telling kids they got a wish from a leprechaun," Winkle recalled in a phone interview from Sun City, Ariz. "He did entertainment. He was in the plays and everything. He was never stationary very long."

Tommy the Leprechaun told many people his real name was Tommy Dorset, and recounted a variety of personal histories involving service in the Army or Navy, being a "tunnel rat" in Vietnam and coming west to be a cowboy or the world's first Jewish Leprechaun.

When his health started to fail about a year ago, some people started learning more accurate details about his life. He asked that they not be revealed.

"That would be an injustice," he told Missoulian reporter Vince Devlin in January. "People would think I had been lying to them. I came into town as Tommy the Leprechaun, and I want to go out as Tommy the Leprechaun."

Those wishing to respect that may want to stop reading now. But Tommy was a real man, and respect for his memory includes an obligation to set down a reasonably accurate account of his history.

According to his mother, Terry Beard was born July 18, 1949, in Akron, Ohio. His parents were Bonnie and Jim Beard, who later divorced. He was the third of seven brothers and sisters: Tom, Jerrie, Sherry, twins Betsy and Becky, and Susie.

He went to grade school and high school in Akron, and competed on the high school wrestling team. He joined the Navy when he was 18. However, Bonnie Winkle said he suffered a concussion in a fall and received a medical discharge.

He spent some time in the Midwest working for theater companies in various functions, Winkle said. He also worked briefly at a small ski hill in Illinois where he got his thumb ripped off in a rope-tow accident, she said. His hand had gotten caught in the machinery and he was just able to throw a shovel into the works to prevent his whole arm from being pulled in.

"Then he took off and traveled by himself," she said. "He wanted to see the world. I guess he settled in Montana. I think he did his leprechaun gig in every state."

At Hillside Manor, Holm said she wasn't sure if Tommy made it to the East Coast, but he did have stories of hitchhiking to lots of other places.

"He would tell us about his travels," Holm said. "He'd talk of how he would visit doctors' offices and try to cheer people up and make them laugh. That was his main goal."

Somewhere along the way, he got married to a woman named Janie, Winkle said. Tommy told many people he had a daughter with his wife named Mary, but Winkle said she did not believe he was the biological father. The marriage reportedly lasted about three years. Tommy said he made a couple of attempts to visit the girl after the couple divorced but was unsuccessful.

For the past decade, Tommy bounced around Montana. He spent some time in Bozeman and occasionally visited Butte, but seemed to stay mainly in Missoula. He reported one bizarre incident at a St. Patrick's Day festival in Butte where someone stole his clothes, which later turned up on the body of a murdered man. That incident has been confirmed, according to social workers who helped Tommy with his affairs in Missoula.

Last year, his emphysema got too serious to allow him to climb the three flights of steps to his Howard Apartments home. Partners Hospice case worker Bonnie Malcolm helped find him a room at Hillside Manor. He slept in a chair there, saying his long life on the streets had made beds too unfamiliar.

Holm said he was recently put to bed to recover from illness, but asked to go back to his chair as soon as he recovered.

"He was very caring about the residents and staff," Holm said. "If there was anything he could do, he would do that. He was always doing stuff in activities or visiting people. He'd be there if you wanted to talk."

Tommy died about 4:30 a.m. Friday. Holm said in his last hours, he appeared very peaceful, and tried to describe an "uplifted personality difference" he was experiencing.

"He was still saying, 'I'm glad to see you,' " Holm said. "He still joked around, trying to make people laugh."

No formal memorial service had been planned as of Friday evening. But those who knew him might want to lift a glass in memory of Tommy the Leprechaun.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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