He was Tom Watson, a smart, sensitive guy from suburban Linwood. But he lived a lot of the last 10 years like Indiana Jones, in the jungles of South America.
Watson was a geologist, trained at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. From there, he got his master’s degree at the University of North Carolina.
But he got much of his education and spent much of his working life in the wilds of Suriname, in tropical South America. He spent months at a time in the jungle — sometimes more than a year, exploring for gold deposits in rough, primitive conditions.
“It was not a safe place,” said his mother, Barbara Watson, a retired teacher in her hometown, Linwood.
The dangers included disease, wildlife and armed, illegal miners — jungle pictures of Tom include him with a gun and a machete.
Still, he liked the life there — his mentor, boss and friend, Dennis LaPoint, remembers joking with him that New Jersey was probably more dangerous.
“Tom was very flexible, very low-key, very cool about it,” said LaPoint, Tom’s grad-school adviser, who hired him to do field work in Suriname.
Tom’s family agrees that life in the wild agreed with him. His younger sister, Meredith, can trace Tom’s love of the outdoors back to camping trips — right in their backyard. He got so used to the jungle that sometimes, “He had a hard time adjusting when he came back to the States,” his sister adds.
Now his family is trying to adjust to Tom’s death last month, at 31. Their grief is only worse because he took his own life. Still, his mother and sister were willing to tell his story, and in an interview, they focused far more on how he lived than how he died.
“Tom was like a Renaissance guy — he played guitar, he was an excellent writer,” his mom said.
He could fix anything. He was great with languages. He learned German at Mainland Regional High School and Russian at Stockton, but he taught himself Dutch and a local Suriname dialect. His mom recalls traveling with Tom in Europe, and his German getting them by in that country — until they met some Russians in a bar, and he instantly switched to their language.
He was always a curious kid, fascinated early by anything electrical. He switched his passion to geology at Stockton, where professor Michael Hozik was immediately impressed — and has stayed that way.
“He had a much broader interest base and more intellectual curiosity than most students,” Hozik said.
Tom’s relatives aren’t the only ones struggling to deal with his death. As they talked about him, his two former teachers also fought back tears. LaPoint added that the loss isn’t just felt in New Jersey — Watson left behind lots of friends in the jungle, too.
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