MERIDEN — Tom Caliendo made so many friends over his 37 years of owning Tom’s Place diner that locals affectionately anointed him “mayor” of South Meriden.
“He was everybody’s friend. He was like the mayor of South Meriden. If anybody had a problem in South Meriden, they went and saw Tom,” said Caliendo’s daughter, Cheril Boisclair.
Caliendo died unexpectedly at his home Tuesday morning. He was 76.
Customers knew Caliendo for his sense of humor, kindness, and the card games he played in the corner of his Main Street diner with customers, many of whom he considered family.
“It reminds you of Cheers, everybody knows your name, you know everybody that comes in here,” longtime customer Mike Roberts said.
“It’s like a family reunion every day in here,” Caliendo’s ex-wife Maureen Purcell said. “... a lot of these people came in here as little kids.”
Caliendo opened Tom’s Place in 1982 after his former employer, International Silver Co., closed. At the time, Caliendo didn’t even know how to boil water, but received help from “a lot of good people around him,” said his daughter, Aprill Ouellette.
“I think they came there for his personality, not necessarily for his food,” Boisclair said.
Caliendo poured his life into the diner, so much that his daughters first learned something was wrong the morning he died because he didn’t show up at the diner.
“He came there every day of his life, he was there, in the corner playing cards. Whether he felt good or didn’t feel good, every morning he got up and came here. The restaurant was his life,” Boisclair said.
Caliendo also cared deeply about the South Meriden community, where he was involved in many causes. While Caliendo never got into politics, he often worked behind the scenes and enjoyed debating politics with customers.
Former longtime City Councilor Matt Dominello said he and other councilors used to talk with Caliendo.
“Tom was a hell of a nice guy,” Dominello said.
“He could be gruff and he could also be very caring. Tom was a very giving person,” Roberts said.
Christine Schilling, a longtime customer hired as a cook last May, said Caliendo offered her a job and a place for her family to stay last year while she was going through a hard time.
“I hit a hard spot in my life and Tom was there to help me out. He and his daughters offered me the position to cook here. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I did it,” Schilling said. “If it wasn’t for him, I would not be where I am today.”
David Bowen, another longtime customer, said Caliendo gave him a place to stay in the basement of the diner when he had nowhere else to go.
“Tom was a good guy, he always helped me out a lot,” Bowen said.
Schilling recalled Caliendo regularly asked her about her horse, Charlie, until he died.
“Every morning when I would come in, he’d ask me, ‘How’s Charlie, is he happy today?’ ” Schilling said Friday.
Caliendo paid homage to customers when they died by taping their obituaries and pictures to a shelve in the diner.
“We made a wall because they were like uncles or brothers to us,” Boisclair said.
“He’s getting his own wall,” Ouellette said about her father.
Ouellette and Boisclair have helped run the diner over the years and will take it over with their father’s passing. They don’t expect the diner will change but say it will be different.
“He’ll be missed, that’s for sure,” Purcell said.
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