Dec. 24, 1935 – Nov. 22, 2013
James Tomkins, of Grand Island, a local business owner and general contractor in Western New York for more than 50 years who performed carpentry at the Darwin Martin House, died Friday in Kenmore Mercy Hospital after a short illness. He was 77.
Mr. Tomkins was raised in Buffalo’s Riverside neighborhood, but during World War II, his family moved back to his parents’ native countries of England and Ireland.
Following his graduation from McKinley High School in 1953, Mr. Tomkins served several years in the New York National Guard.
Mr. Tomkins went on to a long career as a contractor, working on hundreds of historic homes, developing and maintaining a loyal customer base, many of whom became his friends.
Some of Mr. Tomkins’ proudest career moments, family members recalled, were working on the Darwin Martin House, including serving as a finish carpenter on the construction of the pergola. In his retirement, Mr. Tomkins also contributed his many skills to Habitat for Humanity, helping construct and remodel homes in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
Mr. Tomkins also volunteered his time with many local organizations including the Town Boys’ Club, Meals on Wheels, Re-Tree WNY and the WNY Peace Center, which gave him a peace award.
Social activism, including environmental issues, were ever on Mr. Tomkins’ radar, even before the movement became popularized.
As a father of five, Mr. Tomkins taught his children to pick up litter and stressed recycling long before it was widely available.
Mr. Tomkins was active in the Nuclear Freeze movement, engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Seneca Army Depot to protest the presence of cruise missiles. He traveled to Russia and Cuba on peace missions; he also was part of a group that went to Nicaragua and built a hospital in the village of Esteli.
Mr. Tomkins was a Little League baseball coach and trailblazer for girls to play the sport when he coached the team of his youngest daughter, Nancy, who broke the gender barrier by becoming the first girl to play in Western New York.
Mr. Tomkins was also involved in many community organizations, including the Grand Island Quality Quest, the Grand Island Conservation Board and the West River Homeowners’ Association.
He also used his carpentry skills to build a bridge in the Town Commons.
An avid woodworker, Mr. Tomkins built boats and other items with his children and grandchildren.
He was fond of the outdoors and enjoyed sailing, hiking, biking, canoeing, camping and bird-watching.
When he wasn’t outside, family members said Mr. Tomkins could be found reading books about U.S. history or the newspaper.
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, the former Betsy Jones; four daughters, Suzanne, Shelley, Nancy and Joan Meehan; a son, James; sister, Peggy Gutzwiller; a brother, Earl; and six grandchildren.
A family tribute brunch for Mr. Tomkins will be held at 11 a.m. Monday in Ellden’s Grill at River Oaks Golf Club, 201 Whitehaven Road, Grand Island.