Tom Wilmar, a member of the California State Guard/Military Museum Command, poses to ‘fire-up’ the 1898 French 75mm cannon he recently restored. Photo submitted.
When Morro Bay’s Tom Wilmer entered La Katrina’s Authentic Mexican Cocina he was dressed head to toe in military fatigues. A longtime friend and colleague, it had been several years and seven national awards for him since I’d updated his amazing career producing “Issues & Ideas” for public radio’s San Luis Obispo affiliate KCBX and “Journeys of Discovery with Tom Wilmer” on www.npr.com.
Fatigues? What else had changed? Would Tom announce he’d been deployed to battle-torn Ukraine or the Gaza Strip? I had reviewed his recent work and had wondered if his latest assignments at the United States Air Force Academy and Space ISAC National Cybersecurity Center in Colorado Springs were training for a military mission oversees.
“I’m on active duty,” he said as he joined me at the table. Breathe, Judy! It rarely is what you think it is in your head! “I’m on a member of the California State Guard/Military Museum Command now,” Tom explained. He had volunteered under the command of Lt. Col. Erik Brun at Camp San Luis Obispo for two years before deciding to swear-in. “My title is Museum Curator at Camp San Luis’ Military Museum office. Remember I served in the Air Force in the late 60s?”
Tom pulled out his phone to show me a recent picture with him posing to fire-up the 1898 French 75mm cannon he had recently restored. Fellow guardsman Jason Lopez of Cambria produced an historical training film circa 1930 that replicates the exact positioning on base used for cannon practice. “They call me the wheelwright.”
He seemed as proud of the “wheelwright” moniker as he is of his gold 2023, 2020, 2019, 2017, 2016, 2015 & 2013 Lowell Thomas Awards (www.tomwilmer.com). “This year’s Indiana Mennonite/Amish show was bestowed by (his peers) the Society of American Travel Writers,” he announced. “It is my second Lowell Thomas award in the past three years to beat Rick Steves and he has radio and television travel shows.”
But then he mentioned a second-place award that seemed just as meaningful. “I loathe doing all this social media writers and broadcasters are expected to do to promote our work. I’ve been guest lecturing for Cal Poly’s journalism department for years so I thought if I could mentor interns interested in travel writing, they might also benefit learnings ocial media marketing and at the same time help me promote ‘Journeys of Discovery.’” He mentioned a talented intern from Canada who also produced her own story that he believed would do well in competition. “I encouraged her to enter it. She beat me! And I was like a proud father when she won the gold!”
For close to 40 years Tom has traveled the world producing stories about interesting people and places. His talent as a craftsman introduced him to his KCBX opportunity. In 1989 he was hired to do finish work on the radio station’s newly acquired San Luis Obispo studios. “I got to know the folks and thought it would be cool to work with these people,” he said in a 2014 interview celebrating his 25th anniversary in the industry. He had professional writing experience, but not broadcasting experience when he pitched a travel series that eventually gained on-air popularity. Some years later NPR suggested their affiliate stations recommend two broadcasters who had developed a following. KCBX recommended Tom and Guy Rathbun.
Exposure on NPR’s worldwide stage expanded the number of invitations Tom receives annually. I found over 600 when I googled “Journeys of Discovery.”
“I sometimes decide to do Central Coast stories (without an invitation),” he said. For example, this past September he interviewed Scott Mather with the Morro Bay Maritime Museum about the dedication ceremony the museum coordinated with Camp San Luis’ involvement to recognize the centennial anniversary of the U.S. Navy’s largest naval disaster at Honda Point. (www.npr.org) “But most of my assignments are in America and overseas generated by contacts from travel media PR firms. They vet and invite qualified journalists. In the past three months I have been on such assignments to Indiana, Missouri, Virginia, and Colorado Springs.” At the end of the month, he will be on an island off the Florida panhandle. In October Tom traveled to San Francisco’s Half Moon Bay and in the last three years he has produced stories in Tahiti, Costa Rica, and Belize.
But there came a time when visiting posh resorts in pretty places created a disconnect for Tom. It triggered a career decision. His mission changed. He would accept the invitations, but the discovery became the focus of his stories. Tom had never been opposed to promoting deserving visitor-serving benefits and activities. After all, he was their guest and appreciated their expectations that his commentary would be positive. At the same time, as an independent correspondent he was never shy about pointing out both the positives along with what he felt might need improvement.
“I realized there was so much invested in these beautiful places and yet when I would go out (into rural communities of Europe or America or wilderness in Africa or the bush in Australia) the happiest people seemed to be the one’s living on barely a $1 a day. They were the people singing and dancing. I promised my work would also have purpose — a message to benefit the greater good.”
Reactivating his service to focus on military history aligned with his new promise. For example, his series at the Air Force Academy covers how the Air Force teaches cadets ethics. In Colorado Springs his interview with Mayor Yemi Mobolade, an immigrant-American from Nigeria, discusses the mayor’s dedication to resurrecting a retro-style of politics that intends to serve all his constituents regardless of affiliation or agenda by being inclusive when problem solving. And yet, even if not always popular, focused on economic vitality and what is best for his city.
Tom spends approximately 150 days a year on assignment. “I average 40 to 50 flights per year, mostly out of SLO with United.” On average Tom produces “…two shows per month titled “Issues & Ideas” (www.kcbx.org) where I primarily cover the Central Coast including San Francisco and down to Los Angeles.”
Indeed, a glamourous lifestyle and Tom would never complain about another journey somewhere, but he admitted, “The only way I receive funding is based on the number of subscribers to the ‘Journeys of Discovery with Tom Wilmer podcast.’ So check out several of his podcasts, and if you like what he is doing, he’d appreciate your subscribing at either Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, Spotify, or NPR.ORG’s Podcast Directory.
So, I had to ask Tom’s favorite place in the world? He instantly said Morro Bay. “The blessing of travel is finding out how nice it is to come home,” he said. “Everything beautiful is here – the Estuary, the wildlife, looking at the Rock and boats in the bay – it never gets old.”
Tom has research to back up Morro Bay’s unique and inviting qualities promoted in his book “California Coastal Getaways.”