It was 1953, the Korean War was over and Tommy Bradeen had spent much of it in the Air Force as a radio communications specialist, involving himself in anything having to do with electronics.
Militarily discharged and back in his hometown of San Diego, he worked at a Mission Beach gas station where he met a sweet Tennesseean named Edna Barnes, whom he married.
To improve his prospects, Bradeen enrolled at San Diego State University intending to complete an engineering degree. He worked part-time on campus for a while, but a growing family demanded more gainful employment, so he soon landed a full-time position as the school’s only electrician.
With no time for classes, Bradeen’s degree plans faded.
"He was so busy just trying to provide for us,” his daughter, Vickie, remembered. “He was constantly doing what was best for his family and not what was easiest for him."
Physical Plant staff members including Tommy Bradeen (1st row - right) in his early days as an employee at San Diego State.
But, degree or no, Tommy Bradeen was an Aztec. When he wasn’t working on campus, he would bring the family by to help out.
At football games, “he would work the scoreboard,” Vickie recalled. “Mama would work concessions and we would run amok through Aztec Bowl where Viejas Arena is sitting right now.
“For whatever game, we'd go sit up in the announcement booth and Daddy would turn on the scoreboard. He would keep the score and we did that for years and years and years.”
In fact, over the five decades that Bradeen worked at the university, his dedication to SDSU is one of the things about him that impressed his friends and associates most. It’s the first thing people recall when he is brought up.
"He loved the university,” said Al Martin, electrical services manager for SDSU’s Facilities Services. “It was his second home. He knew it inside and out.”
A valuable asset
In 1982, When Martin began working for what was SDSU’s Physical Plant, Bradeen had already been on campus more than a quarter century.
He had been responsible for bringing the school’s utility systems up to modern code, had installed the first streetlight circuit on Montezuma Mesa and had set up the electrical and telephone systems in Aztec Bowl for President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 commencement address.
“Tommy was just a fountain of information regarding almost any utility on campus — where a particular steam line was or a particular water line or even the smaller irrigation lines. He had a phenomenal memory and was a very valuable asset to the university as a whole," Martin said.
But it was more than Bradeen’s memory that impressed his coworkers. It was his willingness to share what he knew with “anybody and everybody” according to Martin.
"He tried to pass on information that he had in his head to those working with him and he had a vast amount of information on this campus,” says Martin. “If you needed help, (you would) go to Tommy. He'd give it to you if he had it."
Former Facilities Services Assistant Director Carl Schneider, who is now retired, rode to work with Bradeen for years and says everyone who knew him liked him.
“I can't think of anybody who didn't get along with Tommy,” Schneider says. “And he’d been there so long he was kind of the go-to guy for information about campus utilities just because he'd seen most of it go into the ground. He always went the extra mile to help out with all his background information, which he had on everything,”
Bradeen’s knowledge of the university was so extensive that when he officially retired in 1997, he was brought back as a special consultant to help with numerous construction projects over the next decade.
"We had him back on contract almost all of the time,” remembered Tony Fulton, now retired from his position as SDSU’s campus architect. “Very rarely did we not have something for Tommy to do.
“When the trolley (line through campus) was built, they actually hired him to find stuff for them because they were terribly impressed with the fact that he knew where everything was. If they didn't know where an electrical line was underground, he could go out and point to the spot on the ground and dig and that's where they would find it.
“I gave him a map once of the campus that some consultant had done which was all the property boundaries, the easements and all the things that had been done and he found lots of mistakes. He spent a lot of time correcting all the mistakes the consultants had made reading paper and he could do it all in his head, so he was The Guy."
If there was one thing, however, that could divert Bradeen from his work, it was a rousing session of Pinochle.
Most days at lunchtime he could be found playing the card game with fellow aficionados from Facilities Services or other departments on campus.
“They would eat their lunch and play Pinochle,” Al Martin recalled. “I watched pinochle for years and could never understand the game, so I never volunteered to join in."
"It was always a mystery to me, which was why I never actually played with them,” Schneider remembered, “but I would sit in and watch.
"It was a group of characters. When they played, there was always a lot of humor going back and forth all the time. Tommy told great jokes and always had lots of stories.
“He would tell stories from his time in Korea and he always had a lot of stories about his relatives in Tennessee. He would sneak us back some really, really fine Tennessee whiskey which was handed out when he got back from his vacations."
A severed line
As Vickie Bradeen explains it, her father’s job was not merely what he did; it was who he was.
“For years, I thought his name was Tommy From the Electric Shop because when anyone would call the house, Mama would hand him the phone - he never answered the phone — and said, 'It's so-and-so from the college.' Daddy would pick it up and say, 'Tommy here, from the electric shop.' It was just very, very funny."
Vickie remembered a Friday in February, 2006 when her father finally turned in his campus keys. He was scheduled for open heart surgery a week later.
"He came home that night and he said, 'I feel lighter because I'm not carrying those keys,'” she said. “It was the first time in 50 years he didn't have those keys and that night he went into congestive heart failure.
“It was the weirdest thing ever and I always said I thought it was because he felt like a line had been severed. He had kept going through all of his heart issues because he loved going to that college so much.”
Vickie said her dad returned to SDSU a few more times after that, but stopped after Edna died in 2007. The couple had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2004.
They had been through a lot together, including the loss of three of their six children in infancy or early childhood; surviving a horrific car crash on their way to Tennessee in 2002; Edna’s battle with cancer and the loss of their home and all their possessions in the 2003 Cedar Fire.
Through it all, Marvin “Tommy” Bradeen had maintained his connection to the place he loved: San Diego State University. So after he died on Dec. 27, 2013 at the age of 83, his family made an unusual request of the university; they asked to hold his memorial service at Tony Gwynn Stadium.
An incredible footprint
Construction of the stadium had been one of Bradeen’s favorite projects in the half century he had been associated with SDSU. Former campus architect Fulton says he can’t imagine a more perfect sendoff.
“When they were building the stadium, I had Tommy over there as the project manager and he just loved it,” Fulton says. “He sucked it all up and enjoyed every minute of it. He kind of had a little office over there and hung out with the baseball team and helped out.
"San Diego State was his home. He was very valuable to everybody and he did a lot of good work. There weren't many like him and I don't think there will be another one like him again there."
Vickie said she cried when SDSU administrators granted the family’s request. "Honestly, my sister and I figured it was just a dream,” she said. “It's just a perfect way to honor a pretty amazing man who led, in his mind, a very small life, but he left an incredible footprint. He really, really did."
Tommy Bradeen’s Aztec Red and Black Celebration of Life will be held Feb. 16 at 1 p.m. in Tony Gwynn Stadium. All Aztecs are invited to attend.
“I'm telling people, 'Dress like you're going to an Aztecs baseball game,'” Vickie said. “Daddy wouldn't want it any other way. He would just be, as he would always say, 'tickled pink' about the honor."
And perhaps, in some way, the tribute will provide a sort of cosmic compensation for the one thing Bradeen desired from the university that fate denied him.
“He wanted to get his engineering degree so bad,” Vickie said of her pinochle-playing dad. “He wanted to be a graduate of San Diego State and it just wasn’t in the cards.”
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the SDSU Foundation in Tommy Bradeen’s memory. Call 619-594-3141 for details.