Thomas Adams: A true friend to Wilton

Wilton lost one of its greatest supporters with the death of Thomas Adams on Dec. 16. Known familiarly as Tom, he lived in Wilton more than half a century.
During his time here, he left an indelible mark, not only on the town whose image he helped shape but on the people who knew him. Those who were asked to contribute remembrances of Adams described him as a gentleman, raconteur, mentor, and most notably, a friend.
He was the Adams of the Gregory and Adams law firm, who arrived in 1963 from New York City to assist attorney Julian Gregory with some trial work. He won the case and when Gregory invited him to join him in practice here, Adams accepted. He worked not only in private practice but also served as town attorney from 1967 to 1971. Over the years he also gave his time to civic groups such as the committee that oversaw the building of Wilton High School and a number of philanthropic organizations.
“Thomas Tilley Adams was never first selectman of Wilton, but he appeared to many as the honorable ’mayor’ of our town,” Katharine Welling told The Bulletin. “He knew nearly everyone by name, and his influence on young and old alike was a true measure of this great man. His bigger- than-life personality, generous spirit and wide smile will be missed in the town he helped shape over several decades. Old-fashioned in certain ways, he never took to the computer, but instead always preferred conversing face to face or writing a letter, which he often delivered ‘by hand.’ The impact he made by his presence or the power of his written word was extraordinary.”
Former Bulletin editor Gregg Bartlett recalled Adams as a man “who never sought the spotlight.” A veteran of covering many Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, Bartlett said when Adams presented an application, “he always gave a little history of the property in question.”
Casey Healy, a land-use attorney at Gregory and Adams, described his former colleague as “an exceptional man; my mentor and my friend. He taught me everything I know about land use. He made me a decent attorney and a better person.”
Healy recalled that Adams worked with Charles Dana, whose many charitable endeavors included donating the land that now is Merwin Meadows. He also arranged the donation of the Dana Barn, now the Christmas Barn, to the Historical Society and the Dana House, now Trackside Teen Center, to the town. And he brokered the agreement between St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and the Wilton Presbyterian Church that resulted in their joint campus.
Adams was also involved in the development of the town, working on:

  • The Richardson Vicks world headquarters building at 10 Westport Road, the first major office building in town.

  • The Village Market.

  • The Homequity building across from town hall.

  • Emory Air Freight’s corporate headquarters at 15 Old Danbury Road, now the Commonfund building.

  • Glen River condominium complex.

  • Wilton Hills.

  • Wilton Meadows Health Care Center.

  • The Greens at Cannondale.

  • And in Healy’s words, “who knows how many single-family lots.”

“For a man who was loquacious and a great storyteller, Mr. Adams’ approach before land-use commissions and boards was quite different; less is more,” Healy recalled. “He reminded me often that the commission and board members were there to listen to the architects, planners and engineers, not the attorney: ‘You are the ringleader of a three-ring circus; you are not a star of that circus.’” Adams met many people and made many friends through his land-use work. One was former First Selectman Bill Brennan. “Tom was one of our first Wilton friends, as he handled the purchase of the property where we built our home,” he said.
Brennan recalled a chance encounter he and his wife, Kathleen, had with Adams while dining at Luca’s a few years ago. They exchanged hellos and then Adams left.
“A short while later the waiter brought us each a glass of wine with a note, saying he wished to thank me and the BOS [Board of Selectmen] for arranging to televise our meetings, as he had some occasional sleeping problems and often watched the telecasts late at night. In thanking him in a note the next day, I remember commenting to him that the subject matter and discussions of the BOS, I thought, might be an appropriate cure for his insomnia problem!”
Another former first selectman, Bob Russell, was also a friend. He recalled being invited to join Adams’ bipartisan lunch group, which met once a month to discuss current events in Wilton and reminisce about the past.
“Tom had a delightful sense of humor, enjoying the writing of Oscar Wilde, Ambrose Bierce, and Dorothy Parker,” Russell recalled. “His favorite from Parker was: ‘I like to have a martini, two at the very most, After three I'm under the table, After four I'm under the host.’ “Tom enjoyed his martinis for many years.
“His passing is a great loss to the town and I have lost a friend.”
A father of four, Adams took special interest in many of the young people in town, “a father figure for many,” in the words of Selectman Michael Kaelin.
Katharine Welling recalled, “When Tom met our son, Alex (who was then 13 and a freshman at Wilton High), he asked if he had read one of his favorite Hemingway books, The Sun Also Rises. When Alex answered no, he hadn’t, they struck a deal — if Alex read the Hemingway book, he would read Alex’s favorite Hunter Thompson book — and then they would have lunch to discuss. There began a wonderful relationship.”
During an interview with The Bulletin last year, Adams recalled how, during his career, he gained a reputation as a defense attorney for the teens and young adults in town who ran afoul of the law, mostly for minor offenses, he stressed.
It could have been, he mused, “because I never sent a bill.” He wanted his young clients to pay him, which he realized was unlikely if he was expecting cash. Instead, he put them to work at his home, which had a sizable picket fence. Painting 500 feet of the fence was a usual fee, and Adams said his neighbors joked that he had the whitest fence in town.
In his later years, Adams involved himself in many charitable activities. He donated several items to the Wilton Historical Society, including an antique roll top desk associated with early Wilton education and more recently two comb back Windsor chairs that were handmade in Wilton for his office at Gregory and Adams.
“Tom was so smart,” said Leslie Nolan, executive director of the historical society. “He knew what would really benefit the society. … He was very, very supportive of the programs we are doing and our educational outreach efforts.”
“He quietly supported Wilton in so many ways, most recently by arranging significant contributions from the Shoff Foundation to fund drives for the restoration of Valley Forge Washington and to support the village holiday decorations campaign,” Brennan said. “He was generous, wise and kind and a cornerstone of Wilton. He will be missed, but never forgotten.”
Through the Shoff Foundation, of which he was a trustee, Adams was particularly supportive of Wilton Library, where his late wife, Ginny, had been president of the board.
Library Executive Director Elaine Tai-Lauria recalled being introduced to Adams shortly after taking her new post n 2013. “My very first impressions of this dignified gentleman were his sharp wit, incredible intelligence and wisdom. I quickly grew to admire many of his other qualities as well — his humanitarianism, loyalty and dedication to community organizations, to name a few.
“Of course, his steadfast and generous support of the Wilton Library is near and dear to my heart. Through his advocacy and the generosity of the Shoff Foundation, we received support for many initiatives at our library. I recall presenting the concept of a maker space at our library during a luncheon. Three years ago, there were very few maker spaces in libraries, so I will always be grateful for his belief and trust that our Innovation Station was a worthy investment. His support is also visible in our beautiful jungle-themed Children’s Library entrance, which has become a focal point of the library. Everywhere we look there are reminders of Tom Adams’ support of Wilton Library, including the beautiful Virginia Adams reading area with its lovely fireplace. We shall be forever grateful for his dedication in making the library also a gathering place and cultural center for the Wilton community.”
Tai-Lauria’s predecessor, Kathy Leeds, said she “had the comfortable feeling that he was keeping tabs on the library — making sure it was in good hands, had good counsel, and was being ‘treated properly’ by the town fathers.
“It seems inconceivable that he is gone. But truly, his memory will live on in all of us who were fortunate enough to have his help and affection. And he’ll continue to be revered by all of those who benefited from his teaching, from his support and from his desire to change the world for the better.”
Judy Higby, past president of the Wilton Library Association, recalled how Adams let his personality shine through.
“When I imagine him, whether it be before a town commission, in ‘his’ chair at Eric and Michael’s or ‘his’ chair at Luca’s or ‘his’ chair at Silver Spring Country Club, I ‘see’ him in either his bright green, snazzy trousers or in his Bermuda shorts sporting tall, brightly colored argyle socks if the occasion permitted such whimsy,” she said. “If the occasion did not, the dapper gray trousers with navy blazer or pin-striped suit with the perfect shirt and tie was appropriately what he had chosen. … If I let myself do so, I would blither on and on, but if he ‘heard’ me, I would be scolded — with characteristic good nature but scolded nonetheless.”
“It is difficult to imagine our town without this great pillar … whom we always saw having conversations at the market, library and Luca’s, or entering or leaving his Gregory and Adams office,” Welling said. “He cared deeply for the town he lived in for so many years and its people. I will remember him fondly as engaging, entertaining, full of tongue-in-cheek humor and love … and will miss him dearly.”
“Mr. Adams’ passing leaves a huge void at the firm and a bigger hole in my heart,” fellow attorney Casey Healy said. “I will miss him forever, but when the tears begin to flow, I recall one of Mr. Adams’ stories and a smile immediately returns to my face.”