LISLE | Today, Jim Thome isn’t exactly regarded as a Santa Claus for the determined, but still-tornado-battered, city of Washington, Ill.
He’s more like the White Sox heavy hitter he once adding emergency relief duties, digging into his pockets rather than spouting platitudes about supporting the struggling thousands near his home town on Christmas.
“I’ve personally never seen the damage of a tornado,” Thome said amid the relative calm of counseling dozens of youth baseball players in a clinic the other day at the Bulls/White Sox Academy in this western suburb.
“I’ve never have been in one. It puts everything into perspective after. Obviously, having it hit so close. Then realizing what are these families going to do 10 days or seven days away from Thanksgiving?”
And what are many of the same families doing without permanent shelter six weeks after the powerful F-4 tornado practically bombed flat a large swath of Washington, a city of 15,000 a short drive east of Thome’s native Peoria? Local officials said a significant number left in the cold Nov. 17 when 1,087 homes were destroyed or damaged are still struggling to obtain affordable housing.
His brother Randy Thome was a lucky Washingtonian. His house escaped damage. But Thome did not require kinfolk in the middle of things to act. His baseball model-citizen character through a 612-homer career that included nearly four seasons with the Sox would have motivated him to act regardless.
Thome – now a special assistant with the Sox one year after his retirement -- and wife Andrea are contributing $100,000 to tornado relief. His much admired persona has prompted four of the six teams for which he played – the Sox, Cleveland Indians, Philadelphia Phillies and Minnesota Twins – to join in the contribution. Through the Bulls/Sox Academy, the South Siders also will set up a youth- and athletics-oriented event next spring in Washington.
No matter where the money originates, Washington and Peoria residents appreciate the support from the state of Illinois economic and political center.
“They just like the fact that our area has shown the support,” Thome said. “Anywhere I go in Peoria, people’s comments are, ‘Man, we didn’t realize how much Chicago really cares about us downstate. It’s great to see Chicago step up like that.’”
Almost all Chicago franchises have joined in to help Washington and other storm-battered areas. A number of Bears drove down on their off day. Blackhawks officials showed up. But Thome is making the largest individual contribution so far for a sports figure.
“We’ll divide the money up where it needs to go the right way,” he said. “As this process goes on, the White Sox talked about going down and being part of just the community efforts. Beyond the money, just showing your face (helps) and being interactive with the community and letting them know how much we truly care about what happened.”