Thomas Sterling

Obituary of Thomas Franklin Sterling

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Thomas Franklin Sterling was born October 8, 1938, at what was then Morningside Hospital in Tulsa, the second son of Arta Marie (Van Zandt) Sterling and John Homis Sterling.  Raised in West Tulsa and what is now known as Cherry Street, the path of his life was set when he became interested in music at Horace Mann School in his early teens.  He was a member of the Tulsa Boy Singers, and by the age of 14 was playing jazz saxophone in professional local groups providing dance music at country clubs and halls.  It was the height of the big band era, and that music was Tom’s lifelong love.


He graduated from Central High School in 1956 and attended Oklahoma State University, then graduated from the University of Tulsa (1961).  While at TU, he focused on his academic studies in psychology and continued to play music professionally, a “side man” in the long and rich history of Tulsa music.  When a singer named Sandra Arvidson, a fellow student at TU, joined the John Moore Band, the saxophonist met the love of his life.  They were married July 1, 1960, one of the first weddings in Sharp Chapel on the TU campus.  They spent their holiday weekend honeymoon at Grand Lake.  Tom’s family was among the founders of the Silver Thunderbird Club, since 1941 a friendly collection of cabin owners near Bernice.  Grand Lake was their home away from home for decades, and later they moved their lake activities to Beaver, Arkansas.


They had two daughters and continued to work as musicians in Tulsa’s jazz scene while Tom pursued his “day job” as a salesman in the lumber business.  Tom played with the Mike Moore Big Band, including several sets with Chet Baker, the Dennis Bayton Orchestra, was part of groups which provided sidemen for Tootie Heath and other touring jazz stars, and many other local jazz groups.  The family will treasure the private recordings he made, including his collaborations with pianist/guitarist Mike Leland.


Tom worked as a salesman for several companies, including Georgia Pacific, retiring from Cedar Creek Wholesale in Broken Arrow in 1997.  He loved the outdoors, eagerly planning family float trips on the Illinois River and longer camping canoe and fishing trips around the region, including on the Buffalo River and Glover River.  In retirement he and Sandra, inseparable, indulged their love of travel.  On several occasions he “sat in” with jazz groups in Kansas City.  They visited England and loved Hot Springs, Arkansas, the California coast, and the Monument Valley area.


The hand-made entrance sign to the Silver Thunderbird Club had a motto: “Old wood to burn/Old wine to drink/Old books to read/Old friends to trust.”  That sums up Tom’s approach to life—love the familiar and trusted things and people, enjoy, and always be grateful. 


He was a quiet presence and the heart of his family.  He was unassuming and humble, optimistic and always ready to see what was around the next corner, discuss memorable restaurant meals of the past and meticulously discuss what to eat next.  He always enjoyed cooking beer pancakes with pecans for his guests at the lake.


After several years of escalating health problems, he died peacefully at home on June 12, 2024.  He was preceded in death by his parents, and by his brother, John Arthur Sterling of Hot Springs, Arkansas.  He leaves behind friends and loved ones that could fill a concert hall, including his wife of 64 years, Sandra Gay Arvidson, and daughters Jill Patricia Sterling (John Hubbard) and Dana Sterling (Charles Bode), and two grandchildren, Max Bode and Joe Bode.


A private family service will be held at a later time.  Donations may be made in Tom’s memory to the Sand Springs Animal Shelter, 8620 W. 21st Street, Sand Springs, OK 74063.



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