‘Cowboy Tom’ loves to see people smile

“Cowboy” Tom Whittle entertains students and staff in the classroom at the Special Learning Center.

“Cowboy” Tom Whittle entertains students and staff in the classroom at the Special Learning Center.

A pair of curious hands and wondering eyes lean toward the jingling spurs of his boots, while Cowboy Tom strums away on his guitar at the Special Learning Center.

The teachers continue to sing-along to favorites from “Row, Row, Row your Boat” to “LeRoy Brown” while keeping the preschoolers in place.

He’s a tall man, who looks taller with his frilly chaps and cowboy hat. The children don’t mind looking up at him and making requests — especially music they can dance to.

Centertown resident Tom Whittle says he flies by the seat of his pants each month when he plays for the children.

“They love him,” said teacher Leslie Dean. “It’s great for them to have outside interaction.”

For Whittle, sharing his music with these children and some area nursing homes is a way to say thank you for the return of the talent he once lost.

By age 19, he had organized his own band, playing regular gigs.

Between unreliable backup musicians and overeager booking agents, the music career was bumpy at best.

He continued to work full time for the state to support his family of five.

At the top of his career, he was playing for Chuck Berry, Little Jimmie Dickens, Tommy Jennings (Waylon’s brother), and the Palamino Club in north Hollywood.

His biggest concert shared the stage with Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Paycheck in front of 15,000 in Florida.

And he has one single to his credit. In 1975, he recorded “Country Boy Again” with the Kate Sisters as back up and “An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse” on the flipside.

But by 1985, his left side would give out after a performance, forcing him to give up playing.

It was a low time.

“When I quit the guitar, I was miserable,” Whittle said. “I couldn’t even listen to the radio.”

After getting involved with the area Cowboys for Christ a few years ago, he tried picking up the guitar again.

“I always believed in God and knew absolutely nothing was impossible,” he said.

So he bought a brand new guitar and believed.

“I’ve never had such a strong belief,” Whittle said.

He sees the 20-year dry spell as a chance for better perspective.

“I got my talent from God, but I wasn’t using it right,” Whittle said. “I was using it for my benefit, not his.”

Now, he greets people in the winter with “Happy Easter” and in the summer with “Happy New Year.” And he likes to ask pretty ladies to do him the favor of having a wonderful day.

But the Henley native was painfully shy as a child. Although he loved the music, it took him nearly a decade to step out from the corner and learn the guitar at the weekly family jam sessions, Whittle said.

He developed the gregarious comedian routine to cover for his shyness, he said.

“I just like to see people smile.”

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