WATERFORD (AP) - Until a few years ago, Tom Cerny was your ordinary bushy-bearded former altar boy, Volkswagen bus resident, master grocery packer, eccentric collector and pottery entrepreneur turned savior of dilapidated farm buildings.
Then, "American Pickers" entered his life, and nothing would be the same.
"It just changed our lives," said Cerny, rechristened Hippie Tom during his 2010 appearance on the wildly popular History Channel show that transformed him into a reality TV celebrity.
Since his appearance on the show's second season, Hippie Tom has ranked among the most popular characters of the 500 or so "picks" done by Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz in their Antique Archaeology van - alongside Ron the Mole Man from Pennsylvania; Butch Anthony, proprietor of the Alabama Museum of Wonder and the Possum Trot Auction; and Jack Sophir of Litchfield, Ill., better known as Hobo Jack.
"People recognize me all the time; it's pretty amazing," said Cerny, 62, who lives near Waterford. "Millions of people from all over the world watch that show, and people from other countries contact me and ask me to sign something for them or send them a picture.
"People will see me cutting grass out front and they'll stop and say, 'Are you that guy?' It's amazing."
No less amazing than his path to fame, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
A native of Hales Corners, Cerny was something of a youthful vagabond who spent seven years in college, alternating between UW-Milwaukee and UW-Whitewater without earning a degree. The last few years he restricted his academic pursuits to a single ceramics or pottery course each semester.
During that time, he practically lived in the ceramics department at UW-Whitewater. Cerny would sleep in his Volkswagen bus that he pulled into the building late at night after returning from his job at a grocery store in Waukesha - "I was, like, the star packer in the whole United States" - and then pull it out at 8 a.m. before classes started.
"It was a brand new building with nice new showers," Cerny recalled. "Everyone kind of knew we were doing it, everyone except the dean."
After college, he and a buddy got jobs making pottery on a piecework basis in Cambridge. But when the owner moved his business to Mineral Point, Cerny and his friend were out of work and down to their last $10 when their fortunes changed.
They used a friend's kiln to crank out several hundred pots that they sold to Stein Garden & Gifts in Milwaukee for $1,300. They used that money to start Whole Earth Clay Works in Racine, a business that took off with the creation of Wizard Wick Hurricane Lamps, a ceramic lamp with a wick that wouldn't smoke or burn out.
"We were like the kings of pottery at that time," Cerny said. "Kind of by mistake, we put a glass chimney on top of a clay lamp and that's how it started. We sold them all over the country and we'd sell them for 10 days at Summerfest and make enough money to last the year."
Along the way, Cerny began collecting things, beginning with about 5,000 hats he picked up when an uncle died. He sold them at a store in Waukesha for $2 apiece.
"That was a great start," he said, "and I started collecting more and more and more."
His affinity for collecting surpassed his passion for pottery in 1986, when Whole Earth Clay Works was dissolved.
He and his wife, Sharon, moved in 1992 to their current location, Serendipity Farm, just north of Waterford, taking over a property in deep disrepair.
"I wanted to save all the buildings," Cerny said. "There were 13 of them and they all had rough roofs and were in pretty bad shape. One more winter and they probably would've collapsed."
Once he fortified the structures, he started filling them up with just about anything he could get his hands on. And then he started building more places to put stuff.
He's got about 40 buildings plus eight or nine outhouses on his 35 acres - he's sold the rest of the original 210 acres to the state Department of Natural Resources.
While each building has a place in his heart, his favorite just might be the greenhouse he rescued from nearby Wind Lake.
"It's a great building," he said. "I bought it for $75 and took it down and rebuilt it with my friend Charlie. It was probably built in the '50s and all the glass had slid down over the years. I feel really good about saving that building."
Another notable structure is the church he built to accommodate a couple doors from a church in Thiensville that he picked up at a flea market.
"I tried to sell the doors but couldn't, so I figured as long as I had the doors I might as well use them," he said. "So I built a church around them. They deserved to have a building."
Cerny isn't particularly choosy about what he collects.
"Almost everything appeals to me," he said. "It's not so much the value, but just how it looks. I just collect whatever I can."
He's especially fond of common items like wooden chairs - there are about 400 or so stacked to the ceiling of the hay loft - hammers, ice picks, dust pans and hoses.
hobby is fixing hoses, cutting them apart and putting new fittings on them," he said. "If I ever have to get water to a mile away, I could probably do it."
With his collection affection, Cerny became an immediate fan of "American Pickers" when it debuted early in 2010. And he was flabbergasted when he was contacted by the show's producers, who received an email describing Cerny's quirky assortment of items.
Cerny admits to being flustered when he first met Wolfe and Fritz.
"I was scared," said Cerny, whose previous TV experience consisted of serving as an altar boy on a local church service for shut-ins, and some pottery-promoting appearances while at Summerfest. "I didn't know what to do.
"But it was fun, It was spontaneous," he said. "Whatever you saw on the show was the way it was. Nothing was redone, nothing was scripted."
Cerny's eccentric personality - in TV terms, think of a hybrid of Kramer from "Seinfeld" and Uncle Si from "Duck Dynasty" - made a lasting impression on the Pickers, who spent about $2,000 on 17 items that day.
"It was one of the most unusual picks I've ever been on," Wolfe told Cerny as they prepared to leave. "Not so much the merchandise, but definitely you. They broke the mold when they made you, my friend. You're awesome."
Cerny made a cameo appearance in an episode in Season 4 in which he "accidentally" bumped into Fritz at a motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. "It's hard to say how that happened," said Cerny, feigning amnesia. "It was an incredible coincidence."
It's no coincidence, however, that Cerny appeared in the commercial promoting the show's new season, along with his friend Judy "Pickin' Mama" Gambrel, who has made two appearances on "Pickers" with her giant warehouse in Rockford and has since moved to Waterford after Cerny performed a little matchmaking magic with her and his buddy Terry Alby.
When he's not adding to his collection, Cerny tries to unload some of his stuff at various flea markets and art fairs around the area. He also opens up his farm twice a year for public sales for Hippie Tom's Spring Fling, letting shoppers wander the buildings and haggle with Cerny over a price.
"People actually stand in line for like an hour to just meet me or shake my hand or get a picture," Cerny said. "Some people don't buy anything. I like to spend as much time as I can with everyone. I consider it a real honor to meet these people. It's just amazing."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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