Retired colonel puts his heart and soul into ice dancing

News-DemocratFebruary 2, 2014 

Tom Pawlow is a hot commodity in local ice-dancing circles.

Few men are interested in a hobby that combines figure skating and ballroom dancing, so women always are looking for partners.

"I like to kid him," said Tom's son, Jeff Pawlow, 44, of Swansea. "I'll say, 'You're just an ice-skating gigolo.'"

The teasing doesn't stop with family.

"If I told all my Air Force buddies I've been figure skating, they would give me a hard time," said Tom, 71, of Belleville, a retired colonel. "Some of them know, and they'll say things like, 'Are you going to wear a tutu?'"

But jokes don't discourage Tom, a tall, slender, balding man with wire-rim glasses. He drives to an ice arena in Kirkwood, Mo., once a week for figure-skating lessons.

"I have all ages (of students), from 6 to 19, and then there's Tom," said coach Shirley Panu, of Ballwin, Mo. "He's one of my kids.

"But I don't see him as an age. I don't think of him as a 71-year-old who has to be careful. I push him around the rink the same as everyone else. He gets no mercy. He goes through the same workout as the rest of my students."

Heart and soul

Shirley thinks Tom could pass the pre-bronze test for the first of four adult U.S. Figure Skating levels, despite his scoliosis (curvature of the spine).

"He's good," she said. "He feels music. He's so disciplined, and he's physically strong. He can take the edges better than some of my younger kids.

"And he's all heart and soul. He comes out here to skate, and it's pure joy for him."

During a recent lesson, Tom and Shirley warmed up by gliding around the 28-degree arena, arm-in-arm. Then they practiced a tango, a waltz and an R&B number.

Most other skaters that afternoon were children whose parents watched from the sidelines.

"For me in my 40s, it's an inspiration to see older people out there doing something they love," said Rosemary Wensley, 41, of Des Peres, Mo. "That's how I want to be at that age."

Secret's out

Tom grew up in north St. Louis and attended St. Louis University before spending 26 years in the Air Force. He retired in 1991.

Tom also has worked 22 years for McKendree University, teaching human resources management. He now serves as associate dean at its Scott Air Force Base center.

"I don't think too many people on campus know much about Tom's ice dancing," said Lisa Brandon, director of media relations. "He is better known as an avid Cardinals fan and a collector of baseball memorabilia."

Officials recently persuaded Tom to go public with his covert activity. He'll be featured in the Feb. 10 Magazine for McKendree.

"At McKendree, we advocate lifelong learning," Lisa said. "Tom wasn't afraid to get out there and try something new and challenging. That's inspirational."

Taking a dare

Tom had never roller-skated and barely ice-skated when his son bought him figure-skating lessons for Christmas in the early 2000s.

"He had just watched the Winter Olympics, and he was talking about how impressed he was with the skaters and how neat it would be to skate like that," said Jeff, an accounting consultant. "He kept yapping on and on about it. We just said, 'It's time to put up or shut up.'"

Tom took the dare and enrolled at the Fairview Heights ice arena. He later joined a synchronized skating team called Classic Reflections.

"I was the only guy," he said. "We had to practice three times a week, and then we'd travel to Chicago and Nashville for competitions. I don't know how I did it."

Tom also entered individually and often won, facing little competition in his age bracket. Sometimes he wore wigs and crazy outfits.

"You know those Bud Light commercials 'Real Men of Genius?'" he asked. "Well, there was one for ice skating. It talked about how you can get out there in a tutu and fall on your butt and still win a medal. So I did a routine to that, and it brought down the house."

Tom also dusted off his Air Force flight suit for a routine set to music from "Top Gun."

"He was out there looking like Tom Cruise, and all these women were swooning over him," Jeff said.

Partner on ice

In the mid-2000s, Tom and fellow synchronized skater Joy Paeth began taking ice-dancing lessons together.

"At the end of (our first exhibition), people in the crowd threw all these stuffed animals in the rink, like we were big-time skaters," said Joy, 50, of O'Fallon.

Tom and Joy went on to win awards, including a gold medal at an International Skating Institute event in Nashville.

Tom hasn't competed since the Fairview Heights arena closed in 2012. Driving to Kirkwood became difficult for Joy, who is director of the Area Agency on Aging of Southwestern Illinois.

"We had fun (ice dancing)," she said. "It was always a challenge. It was very athletic. It's probably the best workout I've ever had.

"You have to keep your core engaged. You need strong legs, and it's very cardiovascular. You're moving very fast. It looks easy, but it's not."

Proud grandpa

Tom lives in Belleville with his wife of nearly 50 years, Mary Lou. They have two grown children and six grandchildren.

All three of Jeff's sons play hockey. That includes Stan Pawlow, who started figure skating at 5, when Tom gave him a gift certificate for lessons.

"Now he's a senior at St. Louis University High School and co-captain of the hockey team," said his proud grandpa. "They won the championship against (Christian Brothers College High School) last year."

In Jeff's view, perhaps the biggest benefit of his father's skating is that it keeps him healthy and fit.

"The only thing I regret is that I didn't start when I was 7 or 8," Tom said. "I think I could have been pretty good at it. The body just doesn't work at 71 like it does at 12."

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