“Life goes really fast,” declares Thom Gossom Jr. In a broad sense, the statement is an acknowledgement of the pace of existence in the 21st century, the imperative to keep moving, growing, seeking new challenges. But it serves as well as a reflection on Gossom’s enviably accomplished life and career — and on the 63-year-old Birmingham native’s enduring drive to make the most of his varied gifts.
“We gravitate to stories,” Gossom continues. “Especially in this fast-paced world, we’re always telling a story to communicate information about ourselves, who we are, what we do and why. We’re looking to present ourselves, our work, our passions, in ways that people respond to.”
Gossom’s current foray in pursuit of that philosophy is A Slice of Life, a collection of what he calls “life stories,” fictional tales that also “mirror some of my own experiences.” Released on December 7, the book is the first of a trilogy, with subsequent volumes to be published in the spring and fall of 2016 by Willow Books, an imprint of Detroit-based Aquarius Press. One advance reviewer praised Gossom’s “realistic, descriptive and sensitive portrayals of the people and times he has known.”
The stories in A Slice of Life are set in the 1970s and ‘80s — the decades immediately after integration in Alabama — with the upcoming Another Slice of Life and The Rest of the Pie respectively covering the late 1980s and 1990s, and the years since the turn of the current century. That the roughly five decades spanned by the trilogy parallel Gossom’s late youth and adulthood is not coincidental.
“These stories are not necessarily my life,” Gossom explains. “I take the nugget of an experience that I’ve had and build a story around it. There are composite characters, based on people I’ve known or encountered. It’s a way of getting at some larger themes.”
One of the stories in A Slice of Life, Gossom points out, revolves around a young black man who integrates the football team at a major university in the Deep South. “I had an experience like that,” he laughs, “though he’s a much better football player than I ever was.”
In this, Gossom is being at least a little modest. After graduating from Birmingham’s John Carroll High School — where he was one of the first black students — in 1970, he enrolled at Auburn University and won a spot on the football team as a “walk-on,” or non-scholarshipped player. Awarded a scholarship after his freshman year, he became a three-year starter for the Tigers as a receiver. More importantly, he became the first black athlete to earn a degree from Auburn (a story Gossom told in Walk-On, a memoir published in 2008, and in “Breaking the Huddle,” an HBO documentary on the integration of Southern college football released that same year).
Finishing his career at Auburn, Gossom was drafted by the NFL’s New England Patriots, but didn’t make the team. Back in Birmingham he worked briefly as a TV sportscaster before going to work in the communications department of BellSouth. He left in 1987 to start his own PR/marketing firm — with BellSouth as a client — and along the way earned a master’s degree in communications from the University of Montevallo.
Gossom began acting in commercials and corporate videos while at BellSouth, and by the mid-1980s was picking up regular work in television and film. In 1988, he was cast as a city councilor in the popular television series In the Heat of the Night, and played the recurring role for seven seasons. Since then, he has appeared in such acclaimed shows as NYPD Blue (playing the lead guest role in an episode that won an Emmy Award), Boston Legal (another recurring role), ER, The West Wing, and CSI.
Gossom has also done extensive work on the stage, including in Speak of Me As I Am, a one-man play he wrote, and in which he plays nine different characters in a Birmingham barbershop. In addition, he is a sought-after speaker for corporate, civic, and college audiences.
In 1997 Gossom left Birmingham due both to his increasing acting workload and his marriage to Dr. Joyce Gillie, an educator and management consultant. For years the couple — along with their son, Dixon, now a hip-hop artist — was bi-coastal, splitting their time between Santa Monica, California, and Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Since 2010, the Gossoms have lived full-time in Fort Walton Beach, where Joyce is a member of the city council.
Thom, meanwhile, is now chair of the Auburn University Foundation, which he describes as “something I never envisioned” as a young athlete breaking racial barriers and pursuing a college degree. But even as he maintains that that role has brought him “full circle,” he continues to seek out new business and creative challenges — all of which, he says, flow from his lifelong desire and ability to tell stories.
“Everything I’ve done is really an outgrowth of being a storyteller,” Gossom says. “Whether it’s through acting, writing, producing, even business, you’re always telling a story. And as you get older, if you’ve learned from your experiences and gotten to know yourself along the way, then you’re going to be able to tell stories that convey some knowledge and create opportunities for you to grow personally.
“In that sense, I think I’m just hitting my stride.”
Through it all, Gossom has never lost the connection to his hometown. His father and sisters continue to live in Birmingham, along with many old friends, and Gossom says he’s now looking for opportunities — acting and other projects — that will allow him to spend even more time here.
“I’m very much a Birmingham proponent,” says Gossom. “Like most people who love it, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it over the years. I was there just a couple of weeks ago, and it was great to spend time downtown in the evening and see lines to get into places. It’s come a long way, but I still wish it were more progressive, especially in finding ways to get past some of the issues that have always divided us.
“At the end of the day, though, I’ve always considered Birmingham home. I don’t mean that in the past tense, but in the present.”