A lover of Alhambra and proud "soda jerk" dies

When Tom Shea was 2, he rode in the back seat of the family Ford with his two older brothers — Jim and Jack — leaving Ohio in search of the American Dream in Alhambra. Three quarters of a century later, I had the opportunity to meet Shea in his last years in Alhambra. He provided me with a warm welcome to his adopted hometown, enthusiastically supporting our efforts at Alhambra Source to capture the city’s changing diversity and advising on peach ice cream at Fosselman’s or albondigas soup at El Patio Tepeyac.

On Sunday, Sept. 23, Shea died at the age of 78, according to the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce where he worked for many years at marketing director.

One of my favorite stories to report in Alhambra involved accompanying Shea to Fosselman’s Ice Cream, where he told me about his childhood job as a “soda jerk." This was a new term for me; Shea explained it refers to the person who manages the fountain. He told me he worked at Leo's, back when Alhambra was known for its soda fountains and ice cream parlors. That early job apparently imbued him with a lifelong love of ice cream, and he went regularly to Fosselman's, even taking KCET's Huell Howser along for a tour.

The Chamber  shared more about his life, what his passing means for Alhambra, and details about the memorial:

Tom attended Alhambra High School, Pasadena City College, and USC before following his bothers in serving the country with the U.S. Army 3rd Cavalry division, “Brave Rifles.”  Upon return from service, he married Marlene Heimann of West Point, Neb., moved to La Crescenta, where he had two sons — Daniel Joseph Shea (Glendale, Calif.) and John Christopher Shea (Mesa, Ariz.) — and found his love for singing in the church choir at St James The Less Catholic Church.

Divorce brought Tom back to Alhambra where he finally settled in with the true loves of his life:  a career as marketing director for the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce, singing in the Holy Family Church Choir for 25 years, Fosselman’s Ice Cream, and his life partner, Virginia “Ginger” Johnson.

Tom’s passions in life were numerous, including annual reunions with the 3rd Cavalry veterans, food and wine tasting with the same small group of friends for 50 years, singing in two papal choirs, seeing almost every Rose Parade in person, visits to Arizona to see the grandkids and watch high school football games coached by son John, 20 years of ritual Thursday night dinners with son Dan, and most of all, Sunday morning breakfast on the beach with his beloved Ginger.

“When I think of Tom, the first thing that comes to mind was his quick humor, witticism, and an uncanny ability to turn a phrase,” said Owen Guenthard, executive director of the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce. “His appreciation of classical music and singing in his church choir were also very important to him as was his pride of serving in the military. We will all miss Tom’s fine memory and keen interest in history, especially regarding Alhambra.”

Tom is survived by his son, Daniel, and son and daughter-in-law, John and Christine and their children Mason and Mia and his beloved friend and companion, Ginger. Tom’s extended family includes members from Ginger’s side, whom he loved dearly. 

His warmth, humor, and true heart will missed by many.

A memorial Mass will be celebrated Tuesday, Oct. 2 at Holy Family Church, 1501 Fremont, South Pasadena.

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