Tom and Lota, his wife, were members of the same social circle in which my parents moved, so my acquaintance with him goes back into, how do I say it?, pre-memory?
Tom was always a reader and he had an extensive library in his home. In particular he read history. He was a lawyer and later a judge. Not too long after becoming a judge he said to me something like the law itself was pretty simple in the abstract, but that its application to actual cases required great prudence, which he felt could not be got except by a serious study of history.
I think I would have been no more than ten years old when Tom began to talk with me whenever he had opportunity. He was particularly fond of asking me questions (for example, name the three most important technological inventions). Then he would let me struggle with the answers (the wheel, the lever, and, uh, and the …) before filling in his own answer from a whole different level of technology (the printing press!).
Even as a child I knew that Tom was a most exceptional man. There were other learned men. But Tom was one of the very few who would go out of his way to mentor a child. And I was grateful to him.
His assistance extended to practical areas. In my mid teens I began to sing with the adult choir at church. I sat next to Tom and he coached me. In the beginning I was afraid to sing. Tom turned to me and said, “You’re not singing.” I said, “I’m afraid I can’t hit the pitch.” He responded, “You can’t hit anything if you don’t sing. Sing something on every note. Get something out there. Then we can work with it and make corrections if necessary.”
After I reached adulthood I was away from my hometown for many years, then I returned for several years. When I would cross ways with Tom we would continue to chat.
But it was not like old times.
When I was a child, all I knew was that Tom was older and wiser, and magnanimous enough to teach a child.
By the time I had reached my forties, I was beginning to settle into a pattern of thinking that was objectivist and Roman Catholic. And when Tom talked, I now had enough knowledge of my own to recognize his thinking as relativistic and deeply conditioned by Enlightenment thought.
The difference was sharply stimulating for me and I thought with enthusiasm, Now I am a man. Now I can approach this man, who taught me when I was a child, and we, as man and man, can teach each other.
But it did not happen.
The very first time I expressed to Tom a thought different from his own, he said, “No, that’s not right.” And I responded, “Well, listen, Tom ....” And he cut me off aggressively, saying, “No, you listen! You listen to me!”
It took I guess more than ten years to recover from that shock. The shock of finding that for this magnanimous man, the exchange of ideas and thoughts was a one way process. That he was prepared to teach, but not to learn. That even as a teacher, he relied on authoritarian methods and did not tolerate his student’s expression of a contrary thought.
After two or three abortive attempts at talking seriously with Tom, I decided I was looking for something that was not there. For the rest of my years in Dunlap I would greet Tom cheerfully when I saw him, listen to what he said, and just keep my own thoughts to myself.
* * *
Text above this point was wrtten mostly in 2005. The following text was written in 2013.
Tom passed away on 29 November 2012, about four o'clock in the morning,
I never did recover the intellectual relationship I so much wanted with Tom. But at the personal level a manly affection between us was never lacking. Providence even graced us with good timing : in January of 2012 Tom and Lota were among the guests at a little dinner party which I gave for some of my best friends. Shortly after that Tom's health declined to the point he could not get out.
Tom's obituary, in listing extraordinary things that he had done, mentioned that he had read Plutarch's Lives before he was sixteen years old. I did something equally extraordinary, in that I read the same work after I was sixty. And this raises another issue : I read my father's copy, which was identified as such by a name/address sticker inside the cover of each volume. But I don't think my father ever read the work. Wouldn't that be something if it were originally Tom's copy! But how to tell, after all these years ...
© 2013 Joseph Mansfield
2005.03.12 first draft