George Robertson: Captain Tom Friedrich – an appreciation

Tom Friedrich, who died on 1st June 2016, was a resident of Newburyport for almost two years. He was also the owner – and protector – of Islay House for three decades.

A former U.S. Navy fighter pilot, an aeronautical engineer and inventor, he served as personal pilot for Ugandan President Idi Amin and for one of the senior Saudi Arabian Princes. He was an Ileach by adoption and conviction and a friend to so many on the island and indeed throughout the world.

Tom was born in Chicago and trained to be a pilot in the U.S. Navy, becoming a Top Gun and test pilot for the F-14 Tomcat. Islay House once sported the sign ‘A Naval Aviator lives here’.

He flew missions in the Vietnam War, safely completing thousands of treacherous aircraft carrier landings. The Veterans Administration are currently reviewing his record to award him a Distinguished Flying Cross.

After combat flying he joined Grumman [now Northrop Grumman] as a test pilot on their new planes. These were to include the Gulfstream, the private jet of choice for the global super-rich. He then switched to being a Training Captain moving to San Antonio in Texas.

From 1973 to 1976 Tom took the remarkable job of personal pilot to the Ugandan President, Idi Amin, not the most comfortable of bosses. Tom always insisted that the movie about Amin, ‘The Last King of Scotland’ was far from the truth.

In spite of loving the country and its people Tom left Uganda and was head hunted by Prince Khalid bin Sultan, of the Saudi Arabian Royal Family. With a home on the Red Sea and with his extended family in residence Tom had a really fascinating role, including participation in the first Gulf War.

In 1985 he and his wife, Kathleen, having tired of living then in London and refurbishing several houses, were persuaded to come to visit Islay and fell in love with the island and its folk and were persuaded to buy Islay House. The Morrison family, owners of Islay Estates, had decided that the 67 room, 33,000 square foot residence was unaffordable. Tom and Kathleen took on the daunting prospect and promised to care for it.

Islay House looks grand and indeed once was. After all, most Conservative Prime Ministers and countless other grandees had stayed there. But with 26 bedrooms without heating, with ancient wiring and plumbing and masonry, it was some place to take on.

Tom and his wife set to it and made it a warm home and a venue for many island activities. Their children Stephen, Laura and Tom Jnr were followed by five grandchildren in adoring Islay, the closest to a home they had in years of moving. Birthday parties, Hogmanays, and weddings were hosted – and sadly, one wake.

The death of Kathleen was a real blow to Tom. They had adored each other since childhood, were a close team and halved the work of the huge house and the activities on which they were engaged. Tom soldiered on, rattling around in the huge mansion but still maintaining it with true dedication and hosting community events like the annual Cantilena Festival of Music and the Lifeboat Garden Fete.

In spite of the burdens of looking after Islay House, Tom was a generous host and an active citizen. A keen member of the Islay Golf Club, he played every year in the Kildalton Cross Seniors. He was active in a range of community activities and generously donated the land for the Community Garden which produces for the island so much fresh fruit and vegetables. He was a devoutly religious man and the visiting priest always found a bed in Islay House.

Tom was in every sense of the word, a gentleman. Courteous, dignified, interested in people, he was, quite simply, a good man. In his jeans, cowboy boots and Stetson, he was every inch an American but at heart he had become an Ileach, in love with the island and its unique way of life.

Only the distance from his adored family wrenched him away from Islay. He contentedly settled in very friendly Newburyport just to be near them and near the sea – and that is where he slipped away, as June broke.

Family and friends are invited to Thomas’ Funeral Mass at 10:30 a.m. on Monday 13th June 2016, at Immaculate Conception Church in Newburyport. Burial will be private at a later date. The Twomey, LeBlanc, & Conte Funeral Home 193 High St., Newburyport, MA 01950 is assisting Mr. Friedrich’s family with his funeral arrangements.

Online condolences may be offered here online.

Note: Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen was the 10th Secretary General of NATO and before that the Defence Secretary of the United Kingdom. A native of the Island of Islay – the whisky island on the West of Scotland – he holds the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, only rarely given to foreigners, presented to him by President George W Bush in 2003. In 2001, after 9/11, he invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – the article which says that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all. This collective defence guarantee had never before been activated. He was a member of the British House of Commons for 21 years and now sits in the House of Lords. He and Tom Friedrich were friends for many years.

This article has been published in The Daily News of Newburyport

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