Only their mothers could show members of the Petroleum Club more love than Maitre d’ Tommie Wilson. Mom knows your favorite dish. So does Tommie. Mom knows your favorite dessert. So does Tommie. Mom never forgets your birthday. Neither does Tommie.
There is one difference. Mom will always call you by the name she gave you. Tommie never will, even though he insist you call him by his first name.
“Hi, Mr. Wilson, I’m Rany Moore.”
“Mr. Wilson? That’s my daddy. He’s six feet under. Please call me Tommie, Mr. Moore.”
“Okay then, Tommie, and you can call me Randy.”
“No problem, Mr. Moore.”
For Wilson, it’s a matter of common courtesy.
But there is nothing common about Tommie Wilson and the exquisite personal service he lavishes on everyone who enters the Petroleum Club.
“I’m here to make them feel warm and wonderful so they’ll want to come back to us,” Tommie says.
Sherianne Standley is an administrator at the University of Southern Indiana and long-time Petroleum Club member.
“Tommie is the quintessential Maitre d’,” Standley says. “He never overlooks a detail. Seeing to the members’ needs is the most important thing for Tommie.”
The Petroleum Club is a business and social club on the 18th floor of the Old National Bank building Downtown. A group of oilmen founded the club in 1948, hence the name Petroleum Club. The purpose then, and now, is to promote business and commerce in the Evansville area.
Tommie’s purpose is to promote pleasure. He’s perfectly suited for the task. In his soon-to-be-published book, [Mastermind: Seven Secretes of Total Success], Evansville psychiatrist Dr. Louis B. Cady uses Tommie as a case study in happiness.
“I met Tommie soon after I arrived in Evansville in 1993,” says Cady. “Tommie always impressed me as a happy, outgoing guy who is really high on life.”
Dr. Cady, who routinely sees people who find happiness elusive, wondering what in the world makes Wilson so happy and positive? So he interviewed him. If psychiatry can diagnose clinical depression, can it not uncover the source of clinical glee? Dr. Cady concluded that Wilson’s happiness is rooted in service to others. In Cady’s book, service is one of the seven secrets of total success and Tommie is the example.
Cady says, “Tommie is one of the most positive, delightful people I know.”
Wilson is 62 years old. He’s been at the Petroleum Club for 35 years. He started as a bus boy and moved up to server, waiter, supervisor and finally Maitre d’.
“Have you ever been to the moon and back?” Wilson asks as he recalls the day he was hired. “Every man wanted to work at the Petroleum Club. When you wore the uniform of the Petroleum Club, you were the elite, the epitome of what a man desired.”
In this era of drive-through fast food, one might think fine dining is dead. It is not. It might be as rare as sushi, but fine dining is alive and well at places like the Petroleum Club.
Wilson says, “It’s artistic when you’re able to stand in a dining room, flame a baked Alaska, do a Chateaubriand, to carve it and serve it. It’s an art.”
Wilson surveys his domain. As Maitre d’, Wilson’s job is to notice everything, to meet every need. His vision is 20/20, yet he is legally blind.
“I could practically walk through this room backwards without touching an table because I’ve got a feel for it,” says Wilson, who lost an eye when he fell through a plate glass window years ago.
“What you do is visualize things before you look. Then look at the room and see where everybody is at. Anybody moves, I’ve got ‘em!”
Not only Wilson do his job blindfolded, he could do it gagged. Some of the best in the business serve in silence. For them, silence is an essential and distinctive element of excellence in service. But for Tommie — and his guests — that would take the fun out of it. He’s always ready with a smile and an encouraging word.
“If I can take that dining room and have 50 people and send 50 people home happy, I’ve accomplished something,” Wilson says with pride. “If I send 30 home happy and 20 mad, then I ain’t done nothing. I ain’t done my job.
“I’ve got to make sure I give 100 percent, and that’s what I try for 100 percent. Every time a table sets up, I go to it. I’ve go to every table in that room and make sure I give them 100 percent. And that’s what I try for every day. Not one day, not tomorrow, not the next day, but every day.”
Gene Brooks, the former federal judge now in private law practice, has known Tommie for more than 30 years.
He says, “Every time you go there, he makes you feel special. But just when I think I’m special, I look around at some other guy is getting the same treatment.”
Says Ron Lankford, who is now retired after 43 years at Old National Bank, “If you really want to impress a group of people, be sue to ask for Tommie. I traveled a lot: New York, Chicago, San Francisco; Tommie is the yardstick.”
For Wilson, it’s all pay back. The Petroleum Club is a good to Tommie as Tommie is to the Petroleum Club. When Tommie left the hospital after another expensive eye surgery, anonymous members of the club had already paid the bill.
“I can’t dig down and get it out enough to tell you how good they’ve been to me,” Wilson says with a lump in his throat and tear in his eye. “As far as friendship is concerned, they’ve been right there. They helped us (he, his wife Janice and their six children) through crises I didn’t see no way out of. That’s why I walk the extra mile when I’m here. You want a cup of coffee; I’ll get you two. You want a donut; I’ll go across the street and get three.”
Katie DeJean was Wilson’s first friend at the Petroleum Club. The long-time club manager hired Tommie in 1965 and probably had every opportunity to fire him. Wilson arrived at the Petroleum Club with a head full of potential and bell full of beer. She chose to tap Tommie’s potential.
“That’s all I ever did was drink,” says Tommie, who remembers following every impulse that beckons a red-blooded American. “Every young man in the food business has a wild side.”
DeJean tamed Tommie.
As Wilson recalls, she says, “If you want to be a man, you got to walk like a man. That means, for example, you mind your own business. You don’t mess around with nobody else’s woman; you go home to your wife and you take care of your family. When you do those things, you become a man. She would tell me anybody can be a fool. You can play around and have a good time, but it will bounce back on you. I’ll beat you in the face and hurt you where it hurts most — right here,” Tommie says, pointing to his heart. “Every time I think about it, it brings tears to my eyes. That lady was good to me. She took a snotty-nosed little kid and rearranged his life.”
It is probably more accurate to say that DeJean resurrected Tommie’s character because it was there all along — instilled by his parents. Wilson was born next to Trockman’s junkyard south of Downtown. He can still point to the area from the Petroleum Club. His father worked on the railroad. His mother was a full-time housewife and part-time maid. What they lacked in material wealth, they made up for in love. The Wilsons allowed Tommie to attend movies once a month, but required his attendance at church every week.
“You had to do right,” Tommie says. “You had to study your word. You had to go to school. You couldn’t say, ‘I don’t want to go to school. I don’t want to do my work.’ You did it and you loved it or there were other methods of persuasion.”
And he had to respect everyone. Even when the white kids bellowed the occasional “nigger” his way, his parents would resort to those other methods of persuasion if Tommie ever retorted with a “cracker.”
Because he is legally blind, Wilson doesn’t drive. That works out to our benefit, because he walks everywhere and meets lots of people. You’ll know him by the dark jacket and the mustache, the cigar and the smile.
“To me it just feels good to help other people, to do something right, to even make them smile. If you go around the corner and catch somebody with his head down and life him up, give him a bright outlook on things. It makes you feel a whole lot better than walk on and ignore him.”
Wilson might walk down another path once he retires from the Petroleum Club. He’s been studying the Bible by listening to Scripture on tape. He says he feels a call to some kind of ministry to people. What this humble and gracious man doesn’t realize is this: He answered that call a long time ago.