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December 5, 2020

Mack Williams column: Remembering Tom

By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
I met Tom Barrett at Danville’s First Presbyterian years ago, sometimes attending Tom’s Sunday school class. I enjoyed his teaching style, which was similar to that of Saint Paul’s Lutheran’s late Charlie Ritchie. It makes you think about your beliefs, steering clear of veering into a ditch, as opposed to the faith’s actual tenets. I said, “sometimes attending,” because I’ve never been a big Sunday school goer. No harm meant, but when someone might invite me to join their Sunday school class, I’ll say “Sorry, but I’m a conscientious objector to Sunday school.”
On the back row of Tom’s Sunday school class, a natural history friend and I sometimes performed our own fossil and rock show and tell from our collections. Fortunately, we were never discovered by Tom, who although appreciating natural history, himself might have said (in grade-school fashion), “Since you have something very interesting, please share with everyone!”
Before retirement, Tom taught industrial arts at the local Danville high school, where I sometimes part-time subbed. One day, I was assigned to an industrial arts class and remember Tom offering help if anyone got out of hand. Tom was much more imposing than I. I’m Peter Lorre’s height, minus Lorre’s implied malevolence.
Tom was also a Master Gardener, raising a fruit-bearing banana tree. Seeing it, I always remembered that old South Main service station in Salisbury where another banana tree similarly prospered long ago.
Neither Tom’s students nor his yard got out of hand, and neither did his children’s sermon attendees. All attempts at derailment were firmly, but gently, guided back on track.
Tom kept a little notebook in his shirt pocket to remember those sick or in need. I often keep one, but for a more selfish reason: to jot down my column ideas.
During Tom’s funeral, his younger brother spoke about another boy telling him there was no Santa Claus one Christmas. He said Tom beat up that boy, saying: “How dare you spoil our family’s Christmas!” I couldn’t help remembering when my big brother Joe kicked a kid all the way home after that kid tackled and knocked the breath out of little old me in a neighborhood football game (as said in an earlier column, that same kid grew into a gentleman).
Tom’s death resulted from a fall and broken shoulder, leading to internal bleeding and heart attack. About the time he passed away, I fell at a service station, hands and knees absorbing my fall’s energy. Falling at a different angle, I might have broken my shoulder, too. The smallest of things can make such a difference.
Falling at age 69, I experienced something not experienced since about age 10: skinned knees without any tearing of my trousers.
At the grocery store during the pandemic, I always tell the cashier: “Be safe!” Thinking of Tom, I want to rephrase, saying: “Be safe, not just from this virus, but from this life, itself.”

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