BANGOR — Thomas Walsh, the founder and owner of hotel company Ocean Properties and one of the largest seasonal employers on Mount Desert Island, passed away on Oct. 6 at the age of 88. He was surrounded by his family and is remembered fondly by those who knew him.
“His life was a classic example of the American dream come true,” Senator George Mitchell wrote in an email to the Islander.
“The son of Irish immigrants, raised in Maine, he became a highly successful businessman, creating a family company that owns and operates hotels all over the US and Canada.
“Maine has lost one of its finest citizens,” Mitchell continued, “his family has lost a loving husband and father, and I have lost a dear friend.”
Walsh was born on Oct. 8, 1929 in Bangor to parents Francis “Paddy” and Beatrice Walsh. According to a Maine Innkeeper’s Association press release, Walsh’s father emigrated from Ireland at the age of 12 by stowing away on a ship.
Walsh graduated from Bangor High School and worked with his father selling blankets door-to-door. Father and son expanded their door-to-door business to open the Bangor/Brewer Bedding Company in the early 1960s. Then in 1969, Walsh opened his first hotel in Brewer. With this, he founded Ocean Properties and found his niche.
According to the Ocean Properties website, Walsh went on from that first hotel to develop hotels from Maine to Florida, expanding west to Colorado and New Mexico. In 1985, Walsh developed the first of many Bar Harbor properties: Days Inn Bar Harbor.
While growing his company to over 100 hotels throughout the U.S. and Canada, Walsh developed much of the Bar Harbor waterfront. He had a well-known rivalry with hotel owner David Witham, as the two separately acquired and developed properties. They challenged each other’s buildings and permits and one of their disputes went to the Maine Supreme Court.
Zack Klyver of the Bar Harbor Whale Watch (BHWW) remembers Walsh as an employer and a friend. His relationship with Walsh dated back to 1988 when the previous owner of BHWW, Marc Brent, was looking for a home for the company.
“He turned to Tom and asked for a lease at the Regency so BHWW could stay in business,” said Klyver. “Tom said yes, and that was the beginning of a long and positive relationship.”
Walsh would greet Klyver’s dog warmly whenever he brought the dog to the office. When the dog wasn’t there, Klyver said, Walsh would ask after her.
Eventually Brent approached Walsh to buy the business.
Today, Ocean Properties’ holdings in Bar Harbor include the West Street Hotel, Bar Harbor Regency, Harborside Hotel, Bar Harbor Whale Watch (BHWW) and the Harbor Place docks. Harbor Place has a fuel dock and is used by the whale watch boats. It’s also one of two private docks, both owned by OPL, where passengers being tendered to an from anchored cruise ships come ashore.
In 1993, Walsh purchased the historic but dilapidated Bar Harbor Club in West Street to restore it. That’s when he met Jeff Dobbs. The two became good friends after a prickly beginning.
Dobbs remembers having just formed a committee to save the Bar Harbor Club, when Walsh “walked into the meeting and asked us what the hell we were doing having a meeting to decide the future of his building.”
That’s how Dobbs and other committee members found out the building had been purchased and would be under repair.
“He loved historic buildings,” remembers Bar Harbor business owner Sherri Rasmussen, whose West Street gallery is across the street from Walsh’s Harborside Hotel. She noted also his appreciation of history in general: “Mr. Walsh quietly paid to have Bar Harbor’s noon and 9 p.m. whistle restored. The whistle was broken and the town was not sure if it would have money in the budget to repair it. That whistle is part of our heritage, and sometimes when I hear it, I think of Tom.”
Perry Moore of Bar Harbor, who worked with Walsh as his landscape architect, said he always brought his dogs to the office, including Elvis, a 42-pound beagle who was “cagey” around strangers.
One day in a meeting, Moore said, “Elvis jumped up into Tom’s lap and almost as if he expected it, Tom wrapped his arms around Elvis… and began stroking [his] ear. Elvis tucked the top of his snout up against Tom’s jaw. Words don’t do justice to that moment.”
People also remember Walsh for his everyday generosity.
“Tom also was a warm and generous man, contributing to many charitable organizations and, privately, helping many, many families when they were in need of a helping hand,” Sen. Mitchell wrote.
Ron Beard, the Board Chair of the Jesup Memorial Library, cited the Walsh family’s recent $500,000 to the library. “In his early support for the Jesup Library’s plans for preservation and expansion of our historic building, he and his family have invested in the future of our community,” Beard said.
Rasmussen shared her favorite story from when the Harborside Hotel was under construction. One night Rasmussen watched Walsh walk shoeless across the parking lot. She thought it was odd as she saw him get into his car with sock feet and drive away.
She later heard the story: it had rained heavily on the weekend while the construction crew was off. Walsh enlisted the help of a young man he knew to sweep water off the roof, Rasmussen said. “After their work was done, Tom said to the young man, ‘Those are not very good shoes that you have on. Here, take mine. I have lots of shoes.’”
Rasmussen said the young man used to tell people, “I have walked a mile in Tom Walsh’s shoes!”
That combination of generosity and humor struck Senator Mitchell as well. “His spirit, generosity, and good humor will be with us always,” he wrote.