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The Splendiferous House that Ryken Built

COLUMN: Aging in Enlightened Society
by Steven Wilke

TomRykenVetsDay2014At halftime, he grabbed the belligerent man and slammed him against the Lamp Post’s bathroom wall, finally shutting him up.

“Some people are trying to watch the football game in here,” Tom explained to the bewildered, pinned patron who had been accosting people in the next room for the whole first half.

For a man like Tom Ryken, the irritation faded as quick as it came, and he reclaimed his seat at the bar in time for kick-off as the trouble-maker scurried out of the establishment. Soon, a drink Tom didn’t pay for appeared in front of him. It was from a mysterious man on the other side of the bar who had been verbally confronted by the bully’s ruckus and was impressed by Tom’s succinct way of handling it. The man beckoned.

It was 1970, and what Tom didn’t know, was that he was about to meet Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche—the acclaimed and controversial figure who would start Naropa University and bring Tibetan Buddhism to the West—and embark on the journey of his life. The A-frame house that Ryken built stands in a meadow about 9,000 feet above sea level, where mountain wind whispers through nearby Ponderosas and the valley opens to a big blue Colorado sky. It’s the kind of setting he may have described with one of his favorite adjectives: splendiferous, a word that hovers somewhere above splendid and plays well beside extraordinary.

As a general contractor by trade, Tom had built houses before. But this one was different; it was the first building on the newly purchased land near Red Feather Lakes in 1971, sanctioned by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche as the main structure to house students learning Tibetan Buddhist ideals—in what would later become the Shambhala Mountain Center. It was one of many duties Tom would perform for Rinpoche, becoming his devoted student, official representative and personal bodyguard. Yet Tom somehow still had time to be a contractor, community member and family man—all with a quirky, dry sense of humor that was all too familiar to the people who knew him.

“To me he was amazing,” said Tom’s youngest son Norman. “He was a great teacher and a great protector, and it’s amazing to me how many lives he touched.”

Thomas Francis Ryken died on March 14, 2015, of complications from a heart attack. He was seventy three.

“He had to be 500 years old with all the things he knew in his lifetime,” said another Tom—Tom Stephens—who worked alongside Ryken in the plumbing department for 16 years. “That was one of the running jokes. And when we teased him about it he would just smile.”

Tom Ryken on duty (rear, right) while Trungpa Rinpoche makes a toast

Tom Ryken on duty (rear, right) while Trungpa Rinpoche makes a toast

Tom spent his early years in the Oakland area before he joined the army and was stationed in Germany in the 1st Infantry Division. When he got out of the service he married Jane, the love of his life, with whom he celebrated 54 anniversaries.

The couple lived in a few places throughout the country, and while travelling up from New Mexico they ran out of money in Boulder. And Boulder is where they stayed, until that fateful Monday night football game when Tom met Rinpoche, the visionary who had escaped from Tibet in 1959 and was already in the midst of his prolific life work of establishing meditation centers and retreats all over the world, eventually amounting to over 100 in all.

Through Rinpoche, Tom and Jane worked odd but instrumental jobs, helping him set up the Naropa Institute, as well as meditation centers in Boulder, Fort Collins, Nova Scotia and Boston. They made brief homes in Nova Scotia and then the Boston-area, where for a four year stint in the 1980s, Tom worked as comedian Bill Cosby’s guard and chauffeur, while Jane simultaneously worked as actor Joel Grey’s personal assistant.

The rest of his career Tom worked as a contractor, and in 40 years he built or remodeled over 850 houses. It’s a trade he taught his son Norman, starting with that A-frame house in the mountain valley near Red Feather Lakes that not only stood, but stood for so much more.

“He taught me how to frame, how to sheetrock and how to tile,” Norman said, “but he also taught me how to look at both sides of any situation before making a judgment—and that was the most valuable lesson to me.”

Norman remembered the things his dad loved: barbecuing, golf, Native American culture, watching his grandson play football, and the occasional videogame match of Tiger Woods golf.

“That was always fun, until I started beating him,” Norman laughed.

And then there was the place Tom worked in his retirement, the hardware store. Norman estimated that a third of his dad’s customers were from the Buddhist community, and some would drive across the state two to three times a month to see him.

“McGuckin was a family to him—he loved this place,” Norman said. “He talked a lot about the people here, and the fact that it’s non-corporate, family-owned.”

Someone once asked him if he was worried that the Home Depot was coming into town.

“Hell no,” Tom said, “because the people that shop here shop for the experience.”

Tom was part of that experience for many customers. A splendiferous experience, if he would say so himself.

“I see you’ve got supervision today,” he would remark to a passing mother towing her small child. Those who knew him say his humor was off-the-cuff: chock-full of comments that took people aback—that is—before they surrendered to the giggles.

“We always go back to his sense of humor,” Norman said.  “He was a great man with so much knowledge, and he’ll be missed by a lot of people.”

Tom is survived by his wife Jane, two sons, two daughters, 13 grandkids and six great grandkids. Early on a Saturday morning in the middle of March, those who could make it on short notice gathered around the hospital bed to say goodbye. In the weeks before, Tom had a dream where his wife appeared as a beautiful orb, preparing him for a journey, telling him that everything was going to be ok. Surrounded by loved ones in his final minutes, Tom remained asleep, but the nurse said he could hear.

“We’re all blessed to have you in our lives,” Norman told his dad. “We honor you, and just know that it’s ok.”

Steven Wilke is a freelance writer from Boulder, Colorado.

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1 response to “ The Splendiferous House that Ryken Built ”
  1. Linda V. Lewis
    Apr 24, 2015
    Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing this story. I have been doing tonglen for Tom, a dear old friend whom I haven’t seen for 2 decades, since I heard of his death. He was such a good man, gallant in so many ways, and so devoted to Trungpa Rinpoche–whom I’m sure appreciated his big heart and earthiness. In so many ways Tom was Mr. Upaya, Mr. Skillful Means, and delightfully sometimes his “means” were quite unconventional! When is his 49th day?


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