Tom Power had an impact on so many people — on how to run a family business, on how to live a humble, giving life.
Jay Pierce, owner of Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Q, believes Power was one of the kindest people he has met in the past 45 years.
“He was a humble man,” Pierce said. “He would not have any idea that other people looked to him for inspiration and admired him as much as I did. I can’t put it into words. He was just one of those people. You loved him.”
Power, co-owner of The Cheese Shop in Merchants Square, died Tuesday while on vacation in Bermuda with his wife of 56 years, Mary Ellen. He was 81.
Karen Riordan, president of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance, said Tom Power set the bar high with both his Merchants Square businesses — The Fat Canary and The Cheese Shop — both places she noted as highly regarded by the Williamsburg community.
“He just stands out as one of those titans,” Riordan said. “And so I think everyone is just really feeling the impact of his death, because when you have someone like that in your midst, you just think they’re always going to be there.”
Colonial Williamsburg interim director of finance Jeff Duncan, who oversees the properties in Merchants Square, said over the past year, he saw up close how much Power cared for his customers and how passionate he was about his business. Duncan said Power’s attitude and passion is reflected throughout all the retail and restaurant businesses there.
“Tom Power has played a huge role for more than 40 years in making Merchants Square what it is today,” Duncan said.
Tom Power died while swimming in the ocean, according to a post on The Cheese Shop’s Facebook page. He had traveled to Bermuda many times over the years, according to the post.
The Bermuda Police Service confirmed Power’s death and “extends sincere condolences to his family and friends.”
Power got into difficulty while swimming near the beach around 11:40 a.m. local time Tuesday at Pompany Beach Club in Southampton, According to the Bermuda Police Service.
The Cheese Shop Facebook post said Power had gotten caught up in a current.
Power was assisted to shore and CPR was performed, and he was rushed by ambulance to King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, where he later died, the Bermuda Police Service said.
No foul play is suspected, and a family liaison officer was assigned to the family to provide support, the Bermuda Police Service said.
Tom and Mary Ellen Power opened The Cheese Shoppe in Newport News in 1971, and two years later, opened a second cheese shop on Prince George Street in Williamsburg, just before Pierce opened his business.
Pierce said Tom Power always tried to keep up, and stay ahead of the times, citing the many College of William and Mary students he employed, and not being afraid to try new things. Pierce noted the opening of The Trelis restaurant in 1980 as an example. The Powers operated The Trelis with their partners John Curtis and Marcel Desaulniers until 1994.
“We have a tendency to get set in our ways, but young people keep you current and relevant, and I think he was always very current and relevant,” Pierce said, “because thinking outside the box and opening The Trelis, being one of the pioneers to have the forethought to do that was risky at the time because it was so different than anything else that (Williamsburg) had done.”
Frank Shatz, who first met Tom Power 36 years ago as a customer in The Cheese Shop, called him a role model for what a local resident could do for a community. Shatz recalled an early encounter with Power.
“I mentioned to him that the clerk serving some food, they should always touch it with a paper, and he listened to me,” Shatz said, “and since then, for the past 36 years, I have never seen anybody in The Cheese Shop touch the food without the tissue paper.”
In a statement, William and Mary president Taylor Reveley mourned Tom Power’s loss.
“The William & Mary community is heartbroken at the news of Tom Power’s tragic death,” Reveley said. “We are grateful to have been able to make clear our great appreciation for all that Tom and Mary Ellen have meant to our community by presenting them with the Prentis Award last May.
“Tom and the entire Power family have contributed so much to us for decades, supporting and nourishing William & Mary as an extension of their own family. Mary Ellen and all the Powers have our deepest sympathies.”
Over the years, the Power family continued to expand its business offerings, opening the Wine Cellar and The Fat Canary
“I look at Mr. Power, and, he’s an important man, and he’s successful and this and that and the other, and every time I ever saw him, he called me by name,” said Debi Schaefer, executive director of the Williamsburg Area Restaurant Association. “He didn’t just say ‘Hi’, he said, “Hey Debi, how are you? ... He was a true, southern, Virginia gentleman.”
Tom Power, according to the Facebook post, loved swimming, and in particular, loved the ocean. More than 300 people have left comments offering their condolences and memories.
The family plans to hold “a great celebration” of his life soon, the post states. Pierce said Tom Power’s impact goes far and wide, and “he will truly not be forgotten.”
“This loss is not just for Tom and Mary Ellen, Cathy and the immediate family,” Pierce said. “It’s a loss to their extended family, with their extended family being their crew and the whole community.
Said Schaefer: “How do you say goodbye and thank you to someone who’s so special like that?”
LaRoue can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.