By Tom Nash
Tom Champion, known to city residents with landline phones as the Voice of Somerville will be resigning from his position at City Hall on Friday.
Champion, who had served as head of Mayor Joe Curtatone's communications department since 2005, emerged as one of the most recognizable voices in the city thanks to the phone calls residents receive on issues ranging from snow emergencies to U2 concert-related street closures.
The calls, especially his classic early-morning snow emergency update, created a devoted following. A Facebook fan page was created in his honor in 2007. A techno remix of the snow emergency message became one of the unlikely hits of 2009.
The sudden announcement of Champion's puzzled many, but he explained that a sudden offer made by a friend to go back into the private sector proved too attractive to turn down. Champion will serve as vice president of marketing and communications at Bluewater Holdings, a Needham-based company seeking to update the state's water infrastructure with technology that avoids digging up systems for replacement.
"It holds the promise of allowing cash strapped cities and towns with rehabbing water infrastructure for less money than they spend now," Champion explained. "I think they have great prospects."
As for leaving behind the celebrity cult his position has cultivated, Champion said the fame says more about Somerville than it does about himself.
"The phenomenon of having the guy who makes the phone calls for the city become a source of humor and community entertainment happens at the intersection of ... these two aspects of Somerville, political and the social," he explained. "It really could have been anybody at that intersection who would have been subject to the same playful reaction I got."
In a statement, Curtatone lauded Champion for improving the government's transparency and helping improve communication throughout the city. And becoming famous.
"Through his work here, Tom has gained some wonderful friends in the Somerville community - from members of the media, to his colleagues within city government, to those residents who affectionately refer to him as 'the voice of Somerville' - and he will truly be missed by all," Curtatone said.
Champion, who lives in Somerville's Prospect Hill neighborhood, said he will remain active in the community. He credited his position with the city for reviving his acting career, as he has become increasingly in demand in the Somerville theater scene.
The involvement marks a return to Champion's first career. He left his studies at Harvard University in 1978 to pursue acting, making his New York debut in a Riverside Shakespeare Company Production of "As You Like It" in 1979. He toured with a musical adaptation of 1950s hit "Time Remembered" in 1980, but decided to enter politics when Ronald Reagan won the presidency.
Reagan as president was an especially unappealing prospect. Champion's father had worked for California Gov. Pat Brown, who Reagan defeated in 1966. Soon after Reagan's presidential victory, Tom moved to Washington to begin working at a Democratic consulting firm.
"Of course, the transition from theater to political campaigning was completely seamless," Champion added.
Champion hadn't ventured into acting since then, moving on from Washington to public relations roles for Gov. Michael Dukakis, Massport and in academia. Last Halloween, however, Champion returned to the stage as a radio broadcaster in a Post-Meridian Radio Players adaptation of "War of The Worlds." In February, he will appear in Theatre@First's production of "Dracula."
While Champion said his celebrity has mostly been a distraction, he said he has benefited from the connections he's made.
"That whole chain of events would not have developed if I had not been doing the Connect CTY announcements," Champion said. "I've certainly been grateful for that -- it's been a lot of fun."
Champion said the mayor has not decided whether the city will hire a new communications director or spread the responsibilities among the communications office. Champion hopes, however, one of Somerville's signature programs is more accurately represented by his replacement.
"In terms of Shape Up Somerville," he says, "it will be altogether more fitting to have a younger, fitter, more vigorous communications person at the head of that initiative."
Show times for "Dracula" are available at www.theatreatfirst.org