Thomas J. Sanker, second son of a career hotelman, grew up in Rhode Island and graduated in 1972 from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y. He spent many of his working years in the restaurant and hotel business, including over 10 years in rambunctious pre-boom Ketchum and Sun Valley starting in 1976.
Blessed with a life-of-the-party magnetism, he thrived as a bartender and talented chef, and enthusiastically took part in all things that made Sun Valley unique during memorable days and nights of the 1970s and 1980s along the “Street of Dreams.” He had a marvelous sense of humor and generosity of spirit that showed in his gift of storytelling. Never derogatory toward others, and usually self-deprecating, he began stories based on the raw material of life with the simplest of introductions. He added layers and layers of complications to weave a web of hilarity that left listeners in stitches.
From his Idaho base, Tom ventured more and more into the natural surroundings of the West and developed a lifetime love of wild animals. He became a wildlife photographer, illustrator and writer based out of Ketchum, Jackson Hole and New England. His highly accomplished photos and illustrations of wildlife grace the walls of friends and admirers across the country. His final years were spent primarily in a house shared with his older brother within walking distance of Acadia National Park in Maine.
Throughout his life of 72 years, he piled up a myriad of adventures on the road and supported his Boston Red Sox through thick and thin. Tom made people laugh wherever he went and managed to develop a full roster of devoted friends before finally heading down the trail for good. “It was always the laughter, ever-present and always right in front of us,” said Tom about his outlook toward personal connections and the world as it is.
Tom was born March 21, 1949 at Montour Falls, N.Y. near Ithaca and died of natural causes June 6, 2021 at Minot, Maine.
His father George Sanker Sr. served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and graduated from Cornell’s prestigious Hotel School in 1951 under the GI Bill. He soon became assistant manager, and general manager of the Crown Hotel in Providence, R.I. George Sr. served as general manager of Parker House in Boston and the New Seabury Corporation on Cape Cod during the college years of his sons, and well beyond. His four sons grew up in Barrington, R.I., enjoying whiffle ball and baseball and arguing about just everything that 1950-ish boys argued about. Tom and his second baseman brother Bob Sanker made an excellent double play combo. By his senior year at Barrington High in 1967, Tom was Barrington’s starting shortstop and one of the best in the league.
At Cornell, Tom played baseball as a freshman but spent his extra time working thereafter. Hotel School graduates Garry Morfit Jr., Ferg Jansen and Jay DuMond started a restaurant business in a converted boxcar on the outskirts of Ithaca during those days. Tom became a valued bartender and food server working for Mark “The Chief” Emerson at The Boxcar restaurant. When his bosses extended the popular new franchise of theme restaurants to Ohio and Connecticut, Tom joined them on the road as someone who knew the ropes of the business and could bring people together for a common cause.
He brought his bartending skills to Ketchum in 1976 and started to live the dream—learning to ski, spending afternoons on the new Elkhorn golf course and playing a sharp shortstop for the Ketchum Drug Mets of the Ketchum Men’s League well into the 1980s. By 1983, he partnered with the Lennon brothers of River Street Retreat and Tona Backman in a new upscale eatery called Evergreen Restaurant. Tom’s brother Scott, still in the restaurant business as a chef today, and Hotel School classmate Kevin Quinn pitched in to get Evergreen off the ground. While working in the restaurants, Tom also put his artistic talent to work as an illustrator for the Idaho Mountain Express. He published many wildlife sketches as well as drawings of Sun Valley Suns hockey stars in the weekly newspaper.
Tom evolved away from the noisy and crowded rooms of restaurants. He gravitated more toward the quietness of nature and learned the rewards of observing wildlife. Tom served as an assistant to longtime wildlife advocate Jim Dutcher of Ketchum on two of Dutcher’s earliest award-winning nature films—“Rocky Mountain Beaver Pond,” and “Cougar: Ghost of the Rockies.” After moving to Wyoming and while managing a motel in Wilson near Jackson Hole, Tom delved deeply into learning about moose. He integrated himself into their habitat. Tom collaborated as illustrator and photographer, with writer Jennie Promack on “Seasons of the Moose,” published in 1991. He was writer, illustrator and photographer of “Little Annie of Christian Creek,” a 1994 moose publication.
In his photographer’s notes introducing “Seasons of the Moose,” Tom wrote “I came to know that moose communicate their intent….I never approach a moose directly, return a stare, or do anything they may read as aggression. I never forgot that I was an intruder, a visitor in the sanctum of the moose. I tried to act accordingly. Moose allowed me limited access to their realm, but always on their terms. I wouldn’t have it any other way. For me, it will always be a privilege to go into the woods and be in the company of such extraordinary animals.” His older brother and fellow wildlife photographer George Sanker Jr. said about Tom, “He would not kill any living thing, even a mosquito. He felt every animal had as much right to live on this planet as he did.”
Tom was married twice, from 1987-92 to Lisa Crow of Ketchum, now of Dana Point, Calif., and in 1993 to Jane Macdonald, now of Provincetown, Mass. They later divorced. For several years, Tom and Jane, acquaintances for 23 years before their marriage, operated Country Acres Motel in Sandwich, Mass. on Cape Cod. One day, a passing motorist named John Updike, asking for directions, engaged Tom in conversation. They ended up in a long back-and-forth about Hall of Famer Ted Williams—the subject of the 1960 Updike New Yorker piece of writing “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”
His daughter with Lisa Crow is Rachel Sanker, now living in Pompano Beach, Fla. and pursuing a career as a flight attendant. Tom was enormously proud of Rachel, who was born in Sun Valley and attended school in the Wood River Valley, including one year at The Community School. Rachel graduated from Falmouth (Mass.) High in 2006 and from Suffolk University in Boston in 2010. She returned to Ketchum and spent years as a bartender and eventually as manager of The Sawtooth Club in Ketchum—where her father worked behind the bar 35 years before. As a youth, Rachel spent marvelous summers with her father on Cape Cod and shared a love of travel and animals with her father.
Other survivors include three brothers: George Sanker of Bass Harbor, Maine; Bob Sanker (Marylou) of Mashpee, Mass.; and Scott Sanker of Minot, Maine. Nieces and nephews include Anna Sanker and Sean Sanker along with numerous cousins. Tom was preceded in death by his parents, George Sanker Sr. and Marjorie Stull Sanker.
There was no funeral service. Cremation took place. There are plans for an informal small lunch gathering at Boone’s Fish House and Oyster House in Portland, Maine, on July 28 to celebrate Tom’s life.
Donations can be made to Jim and Jamie Dutcher’s 16-year-old Living With Wolves nonprofit dedicated to wolf advocacy. Or, donate to any project involving animal rights and conservation, which were passions of Tom Sanker.