As long as sunsets and sunrises are part of our world, memories of Tom Tierney and how he captured them so spectacularly with his cameras will remain with his family and friends and the thousands who found pleasure in his work.
Tierney was many things in his 71 years, 3 months and 28 days on earth – a son, a husband, a father of three, an environmentalist, a technology specialist – before an apparent heart attack took his life May 15 at his home in rural Rutland, seven miles northwest of Humboldt.
But his passion was photography – and while the sunrises and sunsets he captured with his 35mm digital cameras were spectacular, he also took photos of silos and barns, old buildings, dams, often silhouetted by the sun.
“He was into photography before I knew him,” said Jackie Tierney, his wife of 32 years, who often accompanied him on photo expeditions around Humboldt County and adjacent areas in their maroon Volvo S60 sedan. When Tom made solo trips, it was in his Volvo V70 station wagon named Clifford (which at the time of his death was in the shop, getting repaired for his next journey).
“He once had a darkroom and everything for film cameras,” she said. “Photography was always his huge passion, kind of a security blanket. Both of us were a bit socially awkward – at our wedding rehearsal, he had big camera around his neck to calm his nerves.”
His horizons expanded thanks to a barn cat named Annie.
“For a few years, we lived near New Virginia, Iowa,” Jackie said. “There was this barn cat he really liked, and he started posting on Facebook cute pictures of Annie, who we still have. She lives in our garage and is 9 or 10 years old. Annie followed him around outside. He got a lot of comments – people would ask for new photos of Annie. So Tom randomly started posting pictures, and pretty soon it became a daily event. It kind of became an obsession in the last few years. Anywhere we went always had his camera in his pocket.
“He didn’t do photography to make a profit, he did it for his love of people, preserving history, the need to care for people. He used to say to me all the time, always let the other guy be the jerk. There were many, many sides to him. He was always happy that he will be known forever as a photographer.”
Tierney was born in Fort Dodge, the only child of Iva (Fisher) and Francis Tierney. His mother worked as a court reporter and his father was an attorney who served as a state representative from 1951 to 1953 and as a magistrate and juvenile judge.
Tierney graduated from Fort Dodge Senior High School in 1970, earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Iowa State University in Ames and joined Fort Dodge Laboratories as an IT specialist. When attending an environmental meeting, he met Jacqueline Piersel. He asked her out for dinner while they were on a Sierra Club hike.
“Neither of us had dated anyone else before we met,” Jackie said. “I guess it was meant to be. He was in data processing at Fort Dodge Labs and I was in vaccine research. Both of us were total nerds.”
They married on Sept. 22, 1990, and started a family – two girls and a boy. Katherine Tierney lives in Humboldt and works at Trinity Regional Medical Center in Fort Dodge as a pharmacist. Allen Tierney and his wife, Erin, live in Ames where Allen works in IT for Iowa State University. Mary Tierney lives in Rutland and works for Signet Jewelers in application development.
The family moved from Fort Dodge to an acreage near Rutland in 2002. After about 30 years with Fort Dodge Labs, Tierney joined Wells Fargo Bank in 2013 and was a project manager, working from home, and employed by Wells Fargo at the time of his death.
When he was growing up in his parents’ home, Tierney had a darkroom in the basement – digital photography was still years away and the darkroom was where he processed his film and made prints from the images. He also had a darkroom after getting married, and son Allen remembers that it was the one room in the basement that the kids were ordered to stay out of.
“My dad was a kind, soft-spoken guy and I think people will remember that, too,” Allen said. “I think he would like to be remembered for all the things he did in the community and all he did to help. He would use photography as a tool to help people as well.”
Among the many recipients of Tierney’s photographic talents were the Humboldt County Memorial Hospital (where his photos grace its hallways), St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Humboldt (where he was a member of the choir) and the Humboldt County Historical Society where he would work to restore old negatives and photos. The Humboldt Library has a wall dedicated to displaying Tierney’s work.
Rarely a day would go by when Tierney didn’t take at least one photo, especially at the beginning and the end of a day. Photographers call the hour before sunset and the hour after sunrise as Golden Hours, when the natural light emitted by the sun is more directional and softer. Jackie recalled: “Sometimes he would awaken early and I’d find a note by the coffee pot, ‘Chasing a sunrise, Love, Tom.’”
Not many structures escaped his lens, she said – silos, old barns, country churches and more.
“The Rutland dam was absolutely his favorite thing to photograph,” she said. “It’s in Rose Mill Park in the city of Rutland, right along the Des Moines River.”
A selection of his best photos from Humboldt County was included in a calendar Tierney produced at cost, beginning for the year 2019 through the year 2023, and was sold at V&S Variety Store in Humboldt. Allen Tierney said there are plans afoot to produce a calendar with his dad’s photos for the year 2024.
Tierney’s photo work spanned far more than Facebook, although the social media site provided him a worldwide audience.
He posted his last Facebook photo two days before his death – it showed wind turbines in stormy weather south of Pocahontas. That day, Jackie said, “We decided to go over and do some storm spotting as weather was another interest. Since these storms were slow-moving, we decided it would be fairly safe and easy to stay clear of any dangerous weather and we were hoping to spot (and of course, he photograph) a funnel or tornado on the ground. He did take several photos while we were over there including the one he posted.”
When the sad news of his death became known, the Humota Theater in Humboldt posted on its marquee: “Tom. ThankU 4 beautiful memories.” Tierney had served on the board of the historic, nonprofit movie house.
News of his death was posted quickly on Facebook and Amanda Friedl, of Humboldt County, shared: “So many beautiful photos and memories of Tom Tierney in this thread, I encourage you all to scroll through and be uplifted at the beauty of our world. Tom was a man who could see beauty in the normal and share it in a way that made everyone pause and notice it more. What a gift to a busy world. He will be missed.”
Longtime friend Bill Witt, of Cedar Falls, wrote: “Thank you, Old Friend, for sharing with us your relationship to what is beautiful. It carried you to the end. We walked with you in beauty.’”
He added: “Tom and I became friends over 40 years ago, and I think fondly of the times we crawled through prairies and clambered up wooded ravines together. He was an unassuming person, of deep humanity, but with a delightful, gently droll sense of humor. And he grew into a masterful photographer. The north central Iowa landscape is the most overlooked region of our state, but Tom shows us its great and subtle beauty in images that are quietly and spiritually revelatory.”
Tierney’s family is planning to sponsor an exhibition of his photos at the Historical Society sometime in the fall.
Tom Tierney, photographer, is how he will be remembered, Jackie Tierney said, and that suits her just fine, adding with a smile:
“When I’d be in Humboldt, quite often people I didn’t know would come up to me and ask me if I was ‘the photographer’s wife’ and tell me how much they loved his photos. I was always proud of that and always told him when I had that happen and of course he was always very flattered to hear they liked his photos.”
His daughter, Mary, hopes the legacy of the gentle soul that was her father will continue.
“I know what we are all thinking,” she said. “The world is going to be a colder place without him. Except it doesn’t have to be. Just think, if one person could have this big of an impact on so many people by simply doing the right thing, what could happen if thousands of people did? If we all take some time to try to be more like him, the world could be a much warmer place. Make sure your neighbors are OK. Check on your friends. Smile. Don’t think twice about helping someone who needs food. Go out and take pictures at parades, school activities, the sunset or sunrise, a fun tree you see, birds, flowers, an old building, etc.. There are pictures everywhere if you just look for them.
“Get involved in nature conservation. Fight for the land to be protected and fight for the bees. Get involved in local activities. Support the community and the history around it.
“Why? Because that is what he did and it is the right thing to do. This is the way to let his memory truly live on forever. We can carry his kindness on through each other. We can help him change the world.”