Wathen was born in Vincennes, Indiana, and loved aviation from his early days. As soon as he was old enough, around age 12, he told AVweb in a 2001 interview, he rode his bicycle to the local airport and worked his way into airplane rides washing airplanes, pumping fuel, and sweeping hangar floors.
The sale of his company in 1999 left him free to pursue charitable endeavors, and his passion for flight. He purchased Flabob Airport, one of California’s oldest airports dating to 1925, less than a day before it would have been bulldozed to make way for a housing development, his obituary notes. He soon established what is now known as the Tom Wathen Center, a nonprofit organization based at the airport with a mission to inspire and educate youth and use aviation to foster love of science, technology, engineering, and math, particularly through aeronautics. The center runs programs for students ranging from preschool to post-secondary levels.
Wathen’s first airplane of his own was an Ercoupe be bought in the late 1950s and used to commute to work; he would go on to restore several of them.
“I started buying derelict Ercoupes that I'd find at little airports with the weeds growing up through them, and I'd cart them home, fix them up and sell them,” Wathen told AVweb in 2001. “I still think that Fred Weick's design was way advanced for its time—compared to the Champ and the Cub—because of all the innovative features. Even the new Citations are using the trailing-link gear that Weick popularized.”
Flabob Airport is also today the home of an aviation-themed high school, and a branch of Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology. It also hosts a variety of replica Golden Age racers, which brought Wathen together with Bill Turner in the 1990s, as the pair teamed up to build several replica aircraft starting with a 1934 de Havilland DH.88 Comet dubbed Grosvenor House, the original having won the MacRobertson Race from London to Australia. Flabob is also home to Chapter One of the Experimental Aircraft Association.
“Tom’s special genius was that he never met a stranger. He was instantly and truly friends with everyone he met, without regard to their social standing, money or lack of it,” his obituary notes. “He often drove his pilot friends nuts by his friendly chatter with busy air traffic controllers, but none of them ever spoke sharply to him, sensing his warmth and good will."
Wathen is survived by his wife, Carol Scott Wathen, whom he married in 2011, and a large extended family.
The airport’s Facebook page invites mourners to join a celebration of Wathen’s life June 30 at 5 p.m., Stits Hangar 16A, and an online invitation has been created to allow people to RSVP.