From the Spring 2014 issue of The Senior Times
By Carla McKeown
Many people in Breckenridge consider Tommy Wimberley to be a rather cantankerous ol’ cuss. And Wimberley would be the first to admit that his reputation is probably perpetuated by his own actions.
But, the real estate investor will also tell anyone who will listen that he is often misunderstood. Wimberley is fiercely loyal, patriotic to country, hometown and convictions.
When he’s not working, you can often find him drinking coffee and talking to a group of friends gathered around a table at the local McDonald’s. He is opinionated and outspoken on everything from politics to public schools to economic development.
When you combine that with his tendency to see the world in black and white, with few if any gray areas, there is little room for compromise in his world. An issue is either right or wrong in Wimberley’s book, and he’s likely to make his point of view on the topic known.
If you’ve ever been in Breckenridge during a bond election, you may have seen his prominent “Vote No!” signs posted on property he owns scattered throughout the town. One of the most controversial elections was in 2010 and revolved around a proposed $42.6 million bond to fund school renovations and new buildings. The hotly debated election generated media coverage from as far away as Abilene.
Wimberley insists that he’s not against spending money on the schools and that he just didn’t agree with the plans for the way the money would’ve been spent. In that case, Wimberley was in the majority, with more than twice as many votes against the bond than for it.
Wimberley’s politicking is all from the sidelines, though. He says he ran for a seat on the Breckenridge City Commission one time.
“I got beat so bad that I carried a gun everywhere I went after that because I thought if I don’t have any more friends than that, I surely need to be watching my back,” he says with a chuckle. Then, turning serious again, he continues. “I’m too controversial for a public office because I don’t see any gray areas.
“I don’t ask any favors, but I sure expect to get treated equal. I don’t like people that get favors. It bothers me,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s the poorest person in town or the richest person in town, when we go before a governing body, we all ought to be treated exactly the same. Our children should be treated exactly the same. And that’s one of my pet peeves.”
When Wimberley fights for or against something in Breckenridge, he’s bringing a native’s point of view to the table. The 76-year-old has lived most of his life in Stephens County. He was born in 1937 about a mile south of Breckenridge in a house his parents rented for $2 a month. He was the middle of five children, and by his own description, he grew up poor.
“In my neighborhood, we were all poor people, very poor. Our parents were doing good to put food on the table,” he said. “My parents were hard-working people; it’s just that there weren’t any opportunities at that time. It was tough.”
He attended Breckenridge High School but joined the U.S. Air Force midway through his junior year. While in the Air Force, he was trained as a medic, earned a GED and took some college classes.
After 45 months in the Air Force, Wimberley went into the electrical contracting business; he maintains his master electrician certification today.
But, Wimberley’s work history didn’t start with the electrician job or even with the Air Force. He tells of getting his first job when he was 7 years old. He washed mugs at a beer and root beer drive-in restaurant.
“I was so small, I couldn’t reach in the sink to wash the mugs, so they pulled a milk crate up and I stood on that crate and washed the beer mugs and the root beer mugs,” Wimberley says. “When I was 8 years old, I started delivering papers in downtown Breckenridge.”
He expanded that job into a neighborhood route when he wanted to earn more money to buy a horse. He rode the horse to deliver the papers.
About the time he got his first job, Wimberley also got his first look at welfare. He describes Thanksgiving as a tough time because the family couldn’t afford the extra food for a big feast. But, the young boy noticed that his neighbors had a big basket of food.
“I went running back over to our house, and I said, ‘Dad, I know where we can get some groceries! All we have to do is go down and sign up at the courthouse and we can get a basket of groceries brought to us.’ My dad looked me in the eye and said, ‘Son, before we take handouts from people, we’ll starve to death!’ That was my first look at welfare.”
Wimberley continued working throughout his childhood and teenage years at a variety of Breckenridge businesses, including a service station, a grocery store and a sporting goods store.
Following his stint in the Air Force, Wimberley returned to Breckenridge.
“There’s something about Breckenridge — they claim it’s the Gunsolus (Creek) water — that keeps bringing you back to Breckenridge. You leave and then spend everything you made somewhere else to come back to Breckenridge,” he says. “I didn’t stay gone long, just the Air Force and then about 2½ years in Abilene learning the electrical trade.”
In 1965, he opened an electrical and air conditioning contracting business, which he operated until the 1980s. Along the way, he started buying and developing land, including quite a bit of commercial property. He developed three neighborhoods, one at the lake and two in town.
In 1982, he opened two convenience stores that are now the 7-11 stores in Breckenridge, one on the east end and one on the west end of town.
In the mid-1980s when the price of oil dropped, Wimberley got stuck when the FDIC took over the bank where he had borrowed money. They called in the loan, and after two years of wrangling, Wimberley settled the deal for less than half of what he owed. But, then he had to sell the convenience stores to pay the federal debt forgiveness tax. In what seemed like a never-ending cycle, he had to sell additional property to pay the taxes on the sale of the stores.
“I finally worked my way out of it,” he says. “For two years, I never slept more than three hours a night, worrying about it, trying to figure out how I was going to come up with the money.”
After the economy improved, Wimberley started buying commercial property again, but the high occupancy rates he enjoyed in the early years never really returned. Today, he says, only about 40 percent of his commercial property is occupied.
Wimberley is known as a tough businessman who doesn’t cut many deals, figuring that he’d rather have the buildings vacant than lose money while he watches a tenant turn a profit.
He acknowledges that he is often disparaged for his tough business stance, as well as his opposition to they way money tagged for economic development is spent. But, when pressed, he lists off his contributions to the business life of Breckenridge.
“I buy land, I develop land, I bring in commercial enterprises. I was directly involved in bringing Walmart here to begin with, making the land available to them. Sure, I made money at it; that’s how I make my living, but I could’ve asked for a whole lot more money and run them off,” he says. “I brought Eckerd Drug here to begin with, built the building for them, remodeled the building for them. The Family Dollar store… I can go up and down the street and think of all those old junk buildings I’ve bought and re-done, but I’ve got to have a return on my money. I’m not a charity organization.”
He may not be a charity organization, but Wimberley says that he does make contributions to the community, such as donating labor and parts for electrical improvements at the Stephens County museum and supporting his long-time employee’s work with Meals on Wheels.
“Most people don’t know what I do because I don’t blow my horn on what I do. I just do what I think needs to be done,” he says.
Wimberley only admits to two soft spots: little children and old people. That’s why he fights against what he considers to be mismanagement in the school district and why he desperately wants Breckenridge and Stephens County to thrive in the 21st century.
“I worry about the overall good of the community, countywide, citywide. Because if we don’t do something, my great-grandkids aren’t going to have the same opportunities I had here,” says Wimberley, who, along with his wife, Sharon, has four children, a stepson, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Just a few years away from his 80s, Wimberley isn’t planning to retire. In fact, he has so many plans for the Buffalo RV Park he opened a few years ago that he doesn’t expect he’ll live long enough to finish them.
He’s currently supervising the construction of a small community room for those staying in the RV park, and he has plans for six cabins and a larger community center that can accommodate groups for reunions, parties and more.
“I like to work,” he says. “I’ve worked hard all my life. My parents worked hard all their lives. I still work nearly every day. I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t play golf… My life has been my work, and I’m happy.”
And, he never seems to run short on ideas…ideas for how the school district can be better, how the city’s infrastructure can be improved, how the business owners of Breckenridge can make the effort to make sure there are activities for the children and care for the elderly. His ideas just don’t seem to stop.
When asked how he’d like to be remembered 100 years from now, Wimberley sums it up this way: “I’m very patriotic. I believe in the Constitution of the United States.
“I believe in the people of Breckenridge. I think we’ve got some absolutely wonderful people in Breckenridge. If you don’t believe it, have something bad happen to you, and you’ll find out how many good people we got in Breckenridge. In everyday life, you might not realize how many good people we got. But, if we have any kind of catastrophe, then all the good comes out in all the good people in Breckenridge, and you’ll find it out.
“For the old people, the down-and-out and the young kids, I’ll fight a circle-saw for them. Everybody in between, they can root hog or die because they can earn it just like I have. They can get off their butts and get out and go to work. And, they’re only limited by how hard they’re willing to work and what they’re willing to put into something for what they receive out of it.
“I feel that way, and I’ve lived my life thinking that. I’ve never wanted a handout, never wanted any favors. Just treat me equal.”