Tom Stein was a Seaside, Florida, legend who left his mark on our town.
Stein passed away on September 24, 2022, leaving behind his loving family, who are continuing his legacy as well as an indelible mark on the town of Seaside.
He moved to the area almost 40 years ago to help found Seaside, after meeting town founder Robert Davis at Antioch College and forming a close friendship that lasted for decades. The close friends often celebrated holidays together and remained close, visiting race tracks all over America and spending time together closer to home.
Tom formed Thomas Stein Incorporated, and he ran the family-owned business for many years, becoming incredibly involved in the South Walton community. The local contractor predicted the need for affordable development and got to work creating it.
He’s also behind many of the special touches of Seaside. He worked on the drainage system in Central Square, leading to the amphitheater's new look that visitors love.
He also set up the “Choctawhatchee Rowing and Paddling Club” in Point Washington, with a building that used to sit on Central Square serving as the club. Although one person joked on the SoWal forums, “Yep, it is Tom, but I think he is a club of one person. I'm not sure if he is looking to expand.” Still, anytime someone sets off in their boat or paddleboard in Point Washington, they’ll think of him.
Now, his daughter, Sarah Stein, and sons, Isaac and Tommy Stein, are working to continue his legacy. Sarah is a General Contractor working at her father’s company, while Isaac helped envision The Court's awe-inspiring landscaping.
Tom and his family were true locals – spending time in the area and working with Robert over the years on new ideas. And now, his work will be continued by the next generation.
Below, Tom’s friends and colleagues share memories and tributes.
Remarks from Robert Davis read by Micah Davis at Tom’s “Celebration of Life” service
Sixty years ago, when you told me that your ambition was to go through life without ambition, it struck me as an enlightened, almost Buddhist approach to living in the moment. It spoke to the desire you had for valuing the experiences life affords us, without the distractions of focusing on a future state that we cannot predict.
In the years after Antioch College, you became a fisherman, a calliope player, a postman, an auto mechanic, a mushroom grower, a cable car grip-man, and a street food chef. Your first food venture, Tom’s Terrific Tacos in Berkeley, segued into Seaside’s New Shrimp Shack, in a 300 ft space, with an ambitious menu that, along with that summer’s torrential rains, ultimately doomed it.
But the Shrimp Shack got you here, and you stayed, even if you occasionally grumbled at the transformations that metropolitans like us had made to the culture.
I am so glad that you came to this area, and that you remained here. We may or may not have followed our NYC landlord’s advice to stay in touch. But in becoming a near neighbor, you ensured that we would remain lifelong friends, through easy times as well as difficult ones, and that became a core fact of both our lives.
Among my most vivid memories is riding shotgun with you through Northern Mexico in a 1961 Corvair, which Ralph Nader described as “unsafe at any speed.” At one point, a 360- degree spin nearly took us over the edge, and we wound up with the right front wheel dangling over a precipice. This moment was the closest either of us had come to dying, until now.
I wish you had managed a few more laps around Watkins’ Glen, but I will treasure the laps we did together at Barber Motorsports Park and Sonoma Raceway and the rallies we did in Colorado and California. And the 61 laps of the sun we shared on this planet.
Now, your spirit will be part of me on the last few laps I take, and, of course, will be part of Janet, Tommy, Sarah, and Isaac, your family and, since I have always felt part of your family since our first visit to your childhood home in Elmira, mine as well.
Ty Nunn, Seaside Architect
In 2010, Tom and I got to work on a significant overhaul of the amphitheater. The work included installing a massive exfiltration system, regrading the bowl, replacing the wooden stage with Krier's tower plaza, and installing the perimeter walking path with the palm allee. We moved the Post Office to its second home, which Tom and his crew executed in such a way as to make it seem effortless. Only later, during its final move, did we learn how impressive the feat truly was.
Most Seaside projects are collaborative, but this one was especially so. I met with Tom most days of the week in my office or on-site to solve the current challenge. We had worked together before, but never as intensely or as closely. Moreover, I hadn't worked on any project to date with the same level of scrutiny. We were reshaping the center of Seaside. Not only were we trying to please Robert and Leon Krier, but we also had all eyes on us from everyone who held Seaside dear. People would come to the job daily to stand at the fence, drink coffee and shake their heads.
The project could have been stressful. I'm sure it was at points, but I don't remember it that way. Regardless of the challenge, I only had one meeting with Tom in which he didn't laugh. He always brought levity and humor to the situation, and he frequently enlightened me, making sure I always felt uplifted and encouraged to press on.
Tom often said, "If you can't perceive the difference, there is no difference." I was usually at my computer, as he suggested the dimensions I was giving him were unnecessarily precise. I would engage with the topic but never concede.
I perceive the difference in Tom's absence. There is a difference to me and likely to the 250-plus members of the community who attended his Celebration of Life. South Walton County and particularly its building community is less thoughtful, witty, and charming due to his departure.
The next time you enjoy a performance on the stage, stroll under the shade of the palms or watch your children play in the grass, think of Tom and smile, as he made me throughout the project.
Erica Pierce, Vice President & General Manager of The SEASIDE Style®
Tom was one of the first people I met when I started working in Seaside back in 1987. He was always on property doing projects to improve the town, most recently working with his son Issac on The Court landscaping. Janet and the kids, Tommy, Sarah, and Issac were very close to my family. Sarah and my daughter Makenzie are the same age and went to the same schools together, where Janet was a teacher. Tom was present for all the children’s events; he was a great family man. We will miss him so much!
Jacky Barker, Seaside Community Realty, Inc.
We are all heartbroken and will miss Tom dearly! He was truly a good person.
Several years ago, I was having dinner with Tom and my parents. It was brought up that I had started getting into watches. Without missing a beat, Tom whipped off his timepiece, turned it upside down, and handed it to me. He had a deep love for mechanical timepieces and wanted me to see the watch’s mechanism through its glass back. He recounted his own attempts to regulate the watch’s movement, an endeavor that had produced mixed results. To me, this story illustrates a quintessential characteristic of Tom: his ability to talk to anyone about anything, and his infectious enthusiasm for the topics he was passionate about. He was not just interesting, but also deeply curious. After asking a question, he would actually listen to and think about the answer, a very rare trait indeed.
Hanging out with him made any experience more fun. Perhaps a good deal of it had to do with his smile. I cannot think of anyone else whose face had been so deeply marked by joy. His eyes would twinkle when he grinned, and the deep lines around his eyes would bunch up, highlighting the happiness he displayed and amplifying it. He was someone I loved telling stories to or hearing jokes from, because of that smile.
Tom did not let life pass him by, nor did he hide his true self from the world, and for both of these qualities, I deeply admired him. It was a privilege and a pleasure to know him, and I will miss him very much.