The time is five-thirty in the evening, and the day has been warmer and less windy than earlier this week. In some places, the snow has melted, but there are still beautiful winter scenes all about us. It is so beautiful this time of the night to drive by farmhouses and see the windows with a yellow glow from the light within those homes. May the love inside be as warm as the light that seems to welcome us to come and visit at hearthside. This evening as we walk past those homes, I want you to imagine that a man named Tom is looking upon us from heaven.
I met Tom when I was the pastor of Second Congregational Church in Attleboro, Massachusetts. He was active as a member of several committees over the years, and his wife, Pat, was a deacon. When I was called to Second Church to be their pastor, I made the mistake of referring to the women deacons as deaconesses; that was a mistake, and Pat let me know so. The women serving on the Board of Deacons were to be called the same as the male members – “Deacon”. I never made that mistake again in the new world of women’s rights. But this is a walk with Tom and perhaps another time with Pat.
Tom was the oldest of seven children; the same number of children that my mother and father had. But there was a difference. My dad was a dentist in Boston and highly respected; Tom’s father had an addiction to alcohol. Tom was born into a family that knew poverty. However, he and his brothers and sisters attended Second Church. I believe that was his mother’s influence.
As Tom and I became closer over the years as I was pastor in Attleboro, he told of his upbringing and what his childhood was like. As Tom spoke, I grew to love and respect him more and more.
One of the stories Tom told me was how he would walk the railroad tracks in Attleboro to pick up coal so his family could have warmth in their home. “I grew smarter,” he said, “for I learned not to pick up coal near home first but to walk far away from home, and then pick up the coal as I grew closer to where I lived.” Coal was heavy to carry in a pail so when his pail was full, he was nearer to home. He also told me that sometimes a kind fireman on the locomotive, when he saw a young boy picking up coal, he would throw a shovelful out onto the tracks.
One day he told me another story that I wanted him to tell the members of the church I was serving in Cumberland, Rhode Island. It was a story about one of his Christmases as a young boy. It happened one Christmas that there was nothing for Christmas morning, no presents for Tom or his siblings. His father told Tom to go into the living room and bring out his toolbox. He promised that he would make a cart or some object for his children as a Christmas present. Tom went into the room, and his eyes could not believe what he saw. There in the living room was a decorated Christmas tree, and under that tree, were presents for each one of the children. It was a Christmas that would always live in Tom’s heart as being the most special of his childhood memories. When he finished the story of his Christmas, he told me that Second Church had made that Christmas for him and his brothers and sisters. And Tom, when he was an adult served that church with his heart and soul. We worked together when we were trying to winterize the church and make it more energy efficient. Tom and I were making covering for the windows way up, just under the ceiling. That was his way of giving back to the church what he had received as a child – the love of Jesus, a love for the Christian church, and a sense of its caring for the welfare of its members. I can tell this story now for God called Tom home last year.
At the age of seventeen, Tom joined the Marines for his country was now involved in a World War. Tom was one of those in that bubble of a flying fortress manning a machine gun. When his bomber would dive, Tom would pass out and then awaken to continue to protect the airplane. Tom was a Marine throughout his life – loving his country and attending the reunions of those he served with during the war. He was indeed one of “the greatest generation.”
Tom married Patricia Bemis, and he attended college to become a teacher. Eventually, he would become Assistant Superintendent of the Attleboro schools. The two of them formed a wonderful family. They had three daughters, and those daughters have such meaningful memories of their family growing up. It was a family that Tom as a child might only have dreamed about. The three girls had all the love they could possibly desire. One of those girls would marry my son Ken. Tom and I kind of made that possible. We talked about our grown children and thought it would be good if they dated each other. They did, and eventually Vicki and Ken were married to my delight. I think Tom knew Ken heard a different drummer, and he loved him even though he married one of his precious daughters.
Tom and Pat’s oldest daughter, Cindy, was not a part of Second Church when I was pastor but had moved into her own life. I regret that I did not know her as I did Vicki and Cathy. All three girls were involved in the church where they lived, and all three girls had beautiful voices and often sang together. (The Kirby show – our son Ken might say.) Cathy is very involved in her church, and like her dad, will always seek to give back with her love for Jesus Christ.
In Tom’s last days, his daughters were so faithful and caring for him. As their mother had passed away some years before, they took their mother’s place in caring for their dad. Maybe there were even times when he took advantage of them – but that’s ok when you are in your nineties. Many health problems besieged Tom during his last years. Near the end of his life, they held a meeting on how to best help him continue to live a meaningful life, after many words and much debate, Tom asked them to look at his chart. He asked them to look at his birthdate, and when they did, he suggested they just make him comfortable. He was 96. Surrounded by the love and honor and respect of his family, Tom reached out and my Christian faith tells me Pat reached out her hand to take him home.
So many lives were made richer by Tom’s life – surely mine. I want you to know Tom.
Tom is part of our history – his love for God and family and country. When I think of my own life and Tom’s, I know this. I was given advantages Tom did not have. He picked himself up and made a life that I honor; for you see – his is the American dream. No matter your beginning, with God, hard work, and determination, you can become a being surly worthy of eternity. May God give us many more like my friend – a wonderful man, father, and a servant of God, Tom. God blessed the life of Thomas Kirby for Tom loved God.
Now you have met Tom.
“And may the Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent one from the other. “