Meet the Candy Man

Rachel Jones

Thomas Kot sits by himself in the stands of the M.A.C. Center, his pale blue eyes intently following the Kent State volleyball game in front of him. A tall man in a Kent State T-shirt walks up. “T-Money!” he yells, smacking a crisp high-five off Tom’s wrinkled hands. Tom laughs and continues watching the game and making small talk with the people next to him.

Later, out in the hallway, several Kent State employees walk by to say hello to Tom or playfully smack him on the back. Then, three small children appear. After saying hi, the trio stands in front of Tom, smiles plastered upon their faces. “Would you like a gumball?” Tom asks. The grins widen as Tom reaches into his tan coat pocket and retrieves an individually wrapped, cherry gumball for each child.

Tom is known as “the candy man” at Kent State. The 91-year-old has been passing out gumballs to every player, coach and fan he sees at every on-campus sporting event he attends, which — “unless I’m sick or it’s too cold” — is every one. It’s been like that since 1995.

“The reason I started passing out candy is I came up here to one of these games, and I had some gumballs in my pocket,” Tom explains in a tired, raspy voice. “And I passed some out to some of the cheerleaders or somebody, and now, I pass them out to everybody around here. It’s something I like to do, and they enjoy it.”

They also expect it. After Kent State field hockey games, Tom wanders over to the tired players, who would be cooling down from an intense game. Like the second hand on a clock, Tom walks around the circle of stretching players, pausing to place a gumball in the free hand of each athlete. Making sure nobody was left out, Tom also tends to the athletic trainers, coaches and stray parents near the bench.

In one game, he’ll pass out about 35 to 40 gumballs, so he makes trips for reinforcements about three times a week. But the personal expenses balance out in the end.

“If I order a Coke (at a concession stand), I say, ‘Here’s a gumball. What do I owe you?’” Tom says. “And if it’s $3, they say, ‘Just give me two.’ Or, if I go over (to the ticket booth), and they want to charge me, I say, ‘Hey, I come here all the time,’ and I give them a gumball and just go right through. I don’t have to pay anymore.” A loud laugh erupts, shaking his entire body and deepening the wrinkles around his eyes.

“Oh, yes. He knows everybody,” says his wife, Doris, followed by an equally enthusiastic laugh. “He knows everybody up at Kent State I think.” — well, he at least knows their faces.

“I know all the girl’s sports. I know all the men’s sports. I know all the coaches. I know all the good boys that left. I don’t know their names now, but every time (they) see me, they want my gumballs,” Tom says, almost shocked. “That’s the truth.”

Not only does the candy man calm any sweet tooth at sporting events, he used to participate in them himself. Tom played baseball and football for Kent State from 1946 to1948 while majoring in industrial arts and minoring in physical education. After graduation, Tom taught at several high schools for 31 years and coached football and baseball for 26. When he was in high school himself, Tom lettered in football, basketball and baseball. But the Yorkville High School student didn’t look like a “typical jock.”

“This is something that’s a bit odd, but I never weighed more than 170 pounds in college,” Tom says. “That’s the truth. I used to get these big bruises because they’d beat the heck out of me.” Currently weighing in at 160 pounds, Tom’s small frame has left dozens of tan and light purple bruises dotting his thin-skinned arms.

Despite his size, Tom ran for 153 yards when he played for the Flashes, living up to his high school nickname: Snakeus. When he carried the ball, he would weave in and out of blockers like a snake would, as Tom demonstrates with a waving hand motion.

These days, the Mogadore, Ohio, native gives back to his alma mater as a member of the Alumni Association and Friends of Kent State. For his athletic history and dedication to today’s Kent State teams, Tom was elected the Fan of Kent State University in 1992 and the Varsity “K” Person of the Year in 1999. The Alumni Association even selected him as the grand marshal of the 2010 Homecoming parade, granting him the privilege of cutting the ribbon to kick off the celebration. He traveled down the parade route on a float, waving with both hands to a sea of faces, some of them actually familiar to him.

But Tom’s current goal is to be inducted in the Kent State Varsity “K” Hall of Fame. He has applied two or three times already. In his most recent application, he says he should be considered “not only for my athletic abilities, but for my philanthropy toward Kent State athletics, teams, players and coaches.”

Kara Warnke Mayle, the director of alumni athletic relations at Kent State, said all applications are sent to the director of athletics and reviewed by the Hall of Fame Screening and Voting Committees. Tom meets all of the qualifications to be inducted except for one: He was not a First Team All-Conference or All-District/All-Region selection.

However, Kent State did not join the Mid-American Conference until 1952, four years after Tom graduated. And Mayle says, “Unique circumstances that may arise will be left to the discretion of the screening committee.”

“I just want to be in the hall of fame to be recognized for what I’ve done in football and baseball,” Tom says. “And I live up at that university — I could write a book about Kent State.”

His most recent application went to Laing Kennedy, former director of athletics, when Tom was 78 years old. The first line reads, “This is my last application to the Kent State University Hall of Fame Committee…” but Tom hasn’t given up yet.

“I’ll probably apply again,” Tom admits, retracting the statement in his application. “But today’s athletes are so good, they’d probably ignore an old man.”

These Kent State athletes are good friends with Tom. He wanted to show them how much he cared by giving them something “that they can show their grandchildren.” Tom compiled scrapbooks with statistics and photos from every game for every sport for each player to take home at the end of the season.

“The reason I wanted to do the booklets was because they’d get a yearbook at the end of the year, but they didn’t get game-by-game pictures or whatever,” Tom says. “I just enjoyed doing them because I had the time, but I quit in 1995 because I was getting too tired to do all that.” Tom looks down then regains his positive attitude. “But then, I started passing out gumballs.”

Surrounding himself with today’s athletes just increases Tom’s desire to be a member of the Hall of Fame. And whether it’s on paper or in sugar form, the athletes love the support Tom brings. Stephanie Arbelaez, junior field hockey player, says Tom always has a smile when he passes out gumballs to her team.

“He congratulates us if we win, and he’s there to support us and lift our spirits (if we lose),” Arbelaez says. “He brightens up the team.”

Perhaps it was that jovial aura that first attracted Doris to her husband when they met in 1946. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Tom enrolled at Kent State to play baseball and football with his brother, Leo. If he wasn’t on the football team, Tom may not have been able to meet Doris, who was the secretary for the coach at the time, Trevor Reese.

“She always said, ‘The reason you played all the time was because I was the coach’s secretary.’ I said, ‘Bull!’” Tom yells sharply. But the gentle smile that quickly follows dissolves any sense of anger or hostility.

The couple wed in 1948 and had four children — Barbara, 57, Tommy, 56, Stacey, 54, and Steven, who passed away when he was 33 years old after an eight-year fight with cancer. Now, Tom says he’s lucky to have his children and eleven grandchildren live within 20 minutes of his house to visit him and Doris, who more or less take care of themselves. His family just stops by to visit and occasionally bring meals.

After 62 years of marriage, the couple acts as if they are still back in college, thriving off playful teasing. Tom jokingly gets on his wife for snacking, and Doris, who lovingly calls Tom, “an old man,” does not think her husband should own 20 articles of Kent State clothing.

“When I’m gone, someone can use them,” Tom justifies, wiping his bandaged nose with a white, wrinkled handkerchief. He then folds the cloth on his lap, resting it gently on his gray dress pants, which are paired with the new, navy blue Kent State volleyball T-shirt. An old, white hat promoting the same team completes the ensemble. Its age is revealed by the soft, yellow streaks along the creases of the bill.

“He’s always been very loyal to Kent State, so he goes to everything he can up there,” Doris says. “That’s his thing.” Tom says he will continue “his thing” of being the candy man until he dies.

“I intend to still be the candy man until I’m six feet under,” he says with a laugh.

But as for his dream of being in the hall of fame, “I figure I’ll never get in,” Tom says, looking down. He shrugs his bony shoulders with a hopeful smile. “But it depends on how the committee works.”

Contact sports reporter Rachel Jones at [email protected].