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Tom Bodett crafts his third act

Tom Bodett and his new calling
Tom Bodett and his new calling 06:02

A woodshop is a place where Tom Bodett can remove some of life's rough edges. Upstairs from the woodshop is Bodett's home recording studio – and that's how you may know him, as the voice of Motel 6. ["I'm Tom Bodett for Motel 6, and we'll leave the light on for ya'."]  

He's been leaving the light on for 36 years. "That line was an ad-lib," he said. "This thing that my mom always says when I come home is, We'll leave the light on for you. They go, 'Oh, yeah, Try that.'"

Tom Bodett - writer, radio personality, Motel 6 spokesman, and woodworker.  CBS News

His father deserves some credit, too. Way before Bodett appeared weekly on NPR as an essayist (that led to his discovery by the ad agency for Motel 6), his father made it clear to him that life was about figuring out how to get things done. He was a mechanical engineer in Sturgis, Michigan, where Tom grew up. "And he spent my entire childhood repairing that house. And it really wasn't until later years that I recognized that my dad didn't know what he was doing. I think the way my dad thought about things is: If somebody could build it, then somebody could fix it."

But in Oregon, 20-year-old Tom Bodett didn't quite figure out how to restore the electricity to his cabin, which involved climbing a pole to reach the power line. "So, I went up and I grabbed the lever, and it blew me off the pole, and practically blew my arm off and stopped my heart," he said. "Then, when I landed, it revived me; that's what they think happened."

Salie asked, "How do you think the accident changed you?"

He paused. "I have a hard time remembering the Tom Bodett I was before that accident," he replied. "He was a very cautious individual. By the time I got healed and out of the hospital, and had survived those burns and that pain and all that, it was like, what else can you show me?"

Then, in Alaska, for 23 years he fished, built homes, and began writing seriously, eventually producing seven books, mostly about his adventures there. And in Alaska, he became somewhat famous for his Motel 6 commercials. "But in Alaska, it's like, that's all they had, right?" he said.

"You were it!"

"Yeah! So, it was kind of a big deal, which was embarrassing."

He also did a considerable amount of drinking. In 1992, he got sober. His first marriage was falling apart, and he vowed to be a good father to his then-seven-year-old son. "I mean, there's a whole lot of reasons to do it, but the fact that it just feels better," he said. "I wake up in the morning, I feel great, I'm not cranky. And that was my new drug – just not being high was my high for a long time."

Moving from Alaska to Brattleboro, Vermont, he said, was not that different: "There's the same kind of people here, same kind of culture: People who know how to do things."

So, in rural Vermont, Bodett crafted his third act.

Salie asked, "If I just met you, and said: What do you do? How would you answer?"

"I'm happy to say, 'cause this is new, that I would say: 'I'm a woodworker,'" he replied. "It took me a long time for me to admit it that that's what I am."

Why? "I don't know. Was I a little ashamed of it? I'm not sure. And I'm a pretty good writer, I'm an okay radio guy. I'm a really good woodworker."

Evidence: He built this really good coffee table. "It's one piece, and because it's bent the way it is, it sits on three legs," he said.

Tom Bodett, with correspondent Faith Salie.  CBS News

He also made a fireplace mantle from cherry. He doesn't sell his work, having no interest in facing deadlines and clients. "I'd rather give it away," he said.

"It'd go from being a joy to a job?" asked Salie.

"Exactly. I can't do that to this. Not this."

But he does share his love of woodworking. In 2019, he co-founded HatchSpace, a non-profit center in Brattleboro where anyone can share tools and ideas. "I think people want to feel like they know how to do things again, I really do," he said.

Tom Bodett co-founded HatchSpace, a non-profit woodworking school, shop and gallery in Brattleboro, Vt.  CBS News

Salie asked, "Is it fair to say that woodworking has helped keep you sober?"

"Oh, yeah, absolutely," Bodett replied. "I owe my sobriety to woodworking, and I owe my woodworking to sobriety. I could not do woodworking if I was drinking. I could not do it. And I love it so much, I cannot give it up."

At the age of 68, Tom Bodett says it would be fine to spend the rest of his life working in this woodshop. That's the advantage of already having died once.

Salie asked, "On your tombstone, will it say: We'll leave the light on for you?"

"I have promised my loved ones to haunt them for the rest of their days if it does!" he laughed.

ESSAY: "Life at the Workhouse" by Tom Bodett
The writer and radio essayist prefers spending time in his shop, and says the true goal of any woodworking project is: Leave with the same number of fingers you started with.      

For more info:

Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Emanuele Secci. 

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