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Published: Tuesday, 6/24/2008

Vietnam War vet perfected his culinary skills in Paris

Thomas L. Gearheart, Sr., 62, a chef and Vietnam War veteran who volunteered as a Zenobia Shrine clown, died Saturday in Hospice of Northwest Ohio after suffering congestive heart failure.

Mr. Gearheart grew up in Charleston, W.Va., and graduated from Charleston High School before enlisting in the Army at age 17. His nearly eight years in the military included tours in both Korea and Vietnam. While working in the kitchen at Fort Polk, La., he developed a passion for cooking that he would parlay into restaurant success in Parsons, W.Va.

Mr. Gearheart perfected his culinary skills at the famed Le Cordon Bleu institute in Paris after his military duty and his family said he became famous in Parsons for "The Big Tom" hamburger, a sandwich that filled the entire plate.

Hamburgers were not Mr. Gearheart's only specialty. During the holiday season, he would whip up batches upon batches of three-inch-thick fudge - peanut butter probably was his favorite - and his family said barbecued ribs and gumbo were his best dishes.

"He loved peanut butter, that was his passion," said Denise Gearheart, his daughter. "He would put it on anything.

"If you left his house hungry, there was something wrong with you."

Before opening his restaurant, Mr. Gearheart moved his young family to Orlando, Fla., where he worked as a pipefitter during the construction of Walt Disney World. His children said their father worked hard to improve the family's living conditions and remember fondly the opportunity they had to test-ride the new attractions their father had helped build.

Denise recalls a time when her children wanted to color their grandfather's hair and, much to their delight, Mr. Gearheart allowed them to use three or four different colors.

His wife, Norma, said he was extremely caring and loved doing things for others. He earned the nickname "Big Scooter" after dressing up as a Zenobia Shrine clown and rolling around in his motorized wheelchair, trying to entertain curious children.

"If you wanted a piece of candy, he'd give you the whole bag," his son, Tom, Jr., said.

Surviving are his wife, Norma sons, Thomas Gearheart, Jr., Steven Perry, James Moody, and Scott Gearheart; daughter, Denise Gearheart; sister, Donna Yates; 13 grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter.

The body will be in the Newcomer Funeral Home after 2 p.m. tomorrow. Services will be at 10 a.m. Thursday in the mortuary. The family suggests tributes to Shriners' Children's Hospitals.

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