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Thursday, Sept. 16, 2004 11:58 am

The road home

art1394

Nobody who knew Tom Teague can believe he's dead. It happened last Saturday, on his 61st birthday, as he napped.

At this point, though, his departure is merely physical. Spiritually, Tom had so much momentum going that his presence will linger for some time.

His writing -- straightforward, spare, and efficient -- has fed Illinois Times readers for almost 20 years, and this edition includes his contributions. Next week's Route 66 coverage is anchored -- fittingly -- by his precise prose.

At the International Route 66 Festival on Sept. 24-26, his wit and wisdom will be felt by everyone who was drawn to the Mother Road by his 1991 self-published book, Searching for 66.

Teague founded the Route 66 Association of Illinois, the Route 66 Hall of Fame, and The 66 News. He led tours and delivered lectures. His e-mail address was teague66. His license plate was KIX ON 66. The snapshot he told his friend Bill Furry he wanted published with his obituary (eerily, just a few months before he died) showed him wearing a jacket emblazoned with a Route 66 road sign while a cat crawled up his back.

His passion for the Mother Road was profound. A few years ago, in an interview with the State Journal-Register, he explained why.

"It was a blue-collar, mom-and-pop road," he said. "It ushered in the golden age of the small-time entrepreneur. It was a populist road, a great example of just enough government assistance. Government built the road, but the entrepreneur along the road gave it character. Yes, it had great scenery. Yes, it provided greater access. But its real function rested in the psyche. It inspired people to dream, and it gave them a chance alongside its pavement to work and to build and to realize their dreams. It was a road of possibility."

Of course, there was much more to Teague than Route 66. He served on the boards of the Illinois Central Blues Club, the Springfield Arts Council, and Downtown Springfield Inc. A member of Beer Can Collectors of America, he made the down payment on his house by selling a fraction of his vast collection.

He also befriended the young skate punk band, Park, which he profiled affectionately in an Illinois Times cover story.

"He enjoyed our music for what it was," says drummer Miles Parkhill, whose mom tracked him down on tour to relay the sad news. "A lot of people his age wouldn't have even taken time to listen."

Some of Teague's deepest friendships were forged during the Vietnam War with a handful of classmates from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. Immersed in Russian and given top secret clearance, they were stationed in Germany where their job was to intercept Soviet military communications. Only a lot of what they intercepted was such mundane chitchat Teague couldn't help pointing out the irony.

"The stuff we were getting was so patently useless that one day Tom turned in a report that instead of 'artillery report' said 'archery report.' He subtitled it 'The slings and arrows of the Soviet Archery Division today,' and this thing was so funny it had people rolling in the aisles," recalls one of his fellow vets, John Kelso. "But the higher it went up the ladder, the more frowns it produced. You could apparently only smile if you were of a lower rank."

Kelso, now an attorney and Presbyterian preacher in San Francisco, recalls this story while packing to come to Springfield, where he will conduct a memorial service for his beloved friend. But it's mainly for Teague's wife, Beth, and son, Sean, he says. He will reserve his grief for Thanksgiving week, the time Teague and his war buddies have reunited to play bridge, drink beer, and sing ribald Army songs annually since 1968. Teague, a bridge master, will be replaced at the card table by another vet's son, but the reunion will go on.

"Our group needs Thanksgiving more this year than ever before," Kelso says. "We're going to need to get together and talk about Tom and do our own grieving."

Funeral services for Tom Teague will be held at 10:45 a.m. today (Thursday, Sept. 16) at Kirlin-Egan & Butler Funeral Home, 900 S. Sixth St. An open-mic tribute to Teague will be held Sept. 26 at 1:15 p.m. during the International Route 66 Festival.

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