Brianne Fleming mug

Gone too soon.

The term seems so loose, sometimes overused. When it comes to a life that’s been lost, isn’t it always too soon? Isn’t it always so tough? The timing will never seem right when someone dies; the term “gone too soon” just isn’t enough.

The Ridgway and Elk County community recently lost a piece of its heart. Tom “T.O” Fitch was not just a native and a moving part of this place I’ve come to know very well, but literally a piece of it –a piece of what is and will always be Elk County.

After starting to cover Elk County as a Courier Express reporter, it didn’t take long to learn of T.O. Fitch. Anyone dabbling in Ridgway would know of him merely immediately.

My experiences with him were strictly business for a while –stories on the Elk County Wilds Tourism Association, a feature on The Summit Lodge and Grill, covering Mountainfest and all of the artists and vendors he helped put on display and bring to the town of Ridgway.

T.O. became a friend, too. Someone I stood next to at a Pro-Police Rally, knowing I was standing with one of the biggest supporters in the world. We bantered about his love for Donald Trump –something he was proud of and didn’t hide from anyone. He stood up for what he believed in, including the town he loved so much. Ridgway was where his heart grew up, stayed, fought and flourished.

Many will remember him as the man who spoke to anyone and everyone, no matter who you were or where you came from. As someone recently told me, every person at every table at The Summit would be waiting for him to stop by and say “Hello,” something he was so glad to do. Everyone was his friend.

My most recent story with T.O.’s name in it was one I never imagined I’d have to write. His fast decline and uphill battle with COVID-19 allowed me to learn more about his family –his four kids and nine grandchildren whom fought so hard for him until the very end. The community that gathered at the Elk County Courthouse, nearly 100 people, to pray for their friend.

Unexpectedly, I received a message from an employee of The Summit, one of T.O.’s places he called home. She thanked me for writing the article, for giving him the spotlight he deserves. But, what I’ll never forget were these words:

“He will absolutely love this. I know he admires you, because you are always there to write a story and get the word out. He has said before what a great job you do.”

When I learned he was gone, I sat and cried at my desk. I couldn’t imagine a world, an Elk County, without T.O. in it, as I’m sure so many are feeling the same. I never thought I’d look back on the last time I saw him, at a Ridgway Borough Council meeting advocating for local business owners, wishing I would’ve taken one long last look at a local legend, said a longer “See you later,” said something more at all.

Even though a light went out in the community Monday, the residents of Ridgway turned on their porch lights, and Main Street went bright for him. I can only imagine what’s coming in memory of Tom Fitch.

The footprints he left are permanent –they’re loud, they’re admirable, they’re passionate. They helped the community move forward and thrive and be alive. They are footprints I’m so glad I had the chance to write about, to know, to remember.

So, it’s never enough to say he is “gone too soon.” Honestly, I don’t know what I’d say instead. I’m probably out of room.

I know with 100 percent certainty you’ll watch over your family, your community. Fly high, T.O., we will surely miss you.

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Brianne Fleming is the Elk County reporter for the Courier Express.

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