James “JJ” Tormey helped so many sports figures and stars get on their way that he really should have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame or some mention in a South Florida sports hall of fame.
Tormey, who died Jan. 4 at 78 in Maryland, was a ticket agent for National Airlines and Pan Am at Miami International Airport from 1969 to 1991.
Frank Sinatra gave air travel a boost of chic appeal when he sang Come Fly With Me. He could have been anticipating the arrival of Tormey on the tarmac. The iconic crooner and actor made sure Tormey knew his alias when he flew into MIA for one of his gigs or film shoots in Miami Beach.
In return, Tormey, who lived in North Miami at the time, would usher Sinatra in and out of the airport to escape the gaze of the press. He also would store the gowns of Barbara Sinatra when she traveled with her husband so they wouldn’t get wrinkled.
As Miami served as the gateway to South America, Tormey also earned points with famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and his crew when the bunch missed their connection. Tormey found them all hotels and stored their underwater gear at the airport until they could fly out the next day.
In his previous job at the desk of Miami Beach’s Casablanca Hotel, from 1960 to 1969, a post he took after serving in the Marines, Tormey took care of young Motown acts like the Supremes and a teenaged Stevie Wonder. Heavyweight champ Sonny Liston trained at the hotel and Tormey helped with his affairs.
Tormey also met the Beatles, who were at the nearby Deauville on Collins Avenue for their second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Free tickets for the Fab Four’s taping were tapped for top Casablanca staffers. Fine lads and all, but Tormey, an Elvis Presley and Sinatra fan, gave his tickets away, certainly making someone’s day.
He was just this great, wonderful, gregarious man who made an instant friend with everybody.
Friend Vance Gulliksen about James “JJ” Tormey
“Dad created a sense of family everywhere he went and with everyone he met. There are so many stories. He was always ready to help people,” said son Jim Tormey.
South Florida sports teams were his passion. He was among a handful of people who attended the inaugural games of all of the region’s major franchises: the Miami Dolphins in 1966, the Miami Heat in 1988, and the Florida Panthers and Marlins in 1993. “He was very proud of this fact,” his son said.
He attended the inaugural games of the Miami Dolphins in 1966, the Miami Heat in 1988, and the Florida Panthers and Miami Marlins in 1993.
Imagine his thrill, then, when he worked the Dolphins charter. The plane was not boarded until Coach Don Shula said, “Board them, JJ!” The doors would not close until Shula gave the nod to Tormey with the familiar directive: “JJ, we’re good to go.”
There were, of course, players who missed the charter, so Tormey would make sure they got on the next commercial flight to the game.
Tormey, a big man with a full head of gray hair who resembled (and played) Santa Claus in his later years, was also involved in the North Dade Optimists. He would take as many kids as he could fit into his car to the Dolphins training camp at St. Thomas University. Running back Mercury Morris strolled over to the sidelines, which, in those days, were mostly open to the public, and jokingly asked Tormey if all these kids were his. “...It was a funny line from Morris,” Jim Tormey said.
Years earlier, while living a year in Boston during 1959, Tormey worked at the Statler-Hilton, where the New York Yankees stayed when playing the Red Sox. Men being men, some of the players would be out on the town and so they’d seek Tormey out when sneaking back to the hotel. Tormey would hustle Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford into the freight elevator many times to avoid manager Casey Stengel, who was waiting in the lobby to catch the players out after curfew.
Born on July 8, 1937, in New York City, Tormey’s father, John, was an advertising executive on Madison Avenue and wrote the Lucky Strike campaign — “much like Don Draper of Mad Men,” Jim Tormey said. John Tormey’s wife died, and he later married his secretary —“just like Don Draper,” his grandson laughs.
Tormey moved from Connecticut to Miami in 1952. He graduated from Coral Gables High School in 1956, before beginning his career. After retiring and moving to Davie, he worked at Debby’s Baseball Card Store in Plantation until 1999. He moved to Ocean Pines, Maryland, to be closer to his grandchildren.
“JJ was a beloved member of the South Florida community and had tons of great stories that he would regale to old friends and new acquaintances, all with his unforgettable wit and charm,” said friend Vance Gulliksen.
Tormey is survived by his wife, Sylvia, sons Shawn and Jim, five grandchildren, brother John and sisters Marybeth, Joan and Cathy.