Uncle Tom Mays

Tom J Mays
A Eulogy by Eric Folkerth
Delivered at the First United Methodist Church of Atlanta, Texas
December 23, 2005

Thomas J Mays was born in the East Texas sawmill town of Talley, Texas on June 3, 1913. He died December 22, 2005 in Atlanta, Texas. He is survived by his wife, Beth Davis Mays; his daughter and son-in-law, Marsha and Craig Innes; his sons and daughters-in-law: Mark and Julia Mays, and Jeff and Lee Mays; Eight grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

If it were up to Tom, this memorial service today would be about five minutes long. But since we have ninety-two glorious years of a life-well-lived to remember, we thank God that it’s not up to Tom.

Tom was a man who believed in angels. In fact, Tom believed he had a guardian angel who looked out for him, and was present with him at several key moments of his life. Tom was also an amazing storyteller. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Big Fish,” then you know the kind of stories Tom Mays used to tell. You were never quite sure where reality started and where legend started. Perhaps it’s always hard to tell where that line is when a good story tells the truth, whether or not it’s actually factual. But, even among the facts of Tom’s life, there are some amazing stories.

Take, for example, the story of Tom’s birth. Tom was born the youngest of eleven children to Samuel and Lucy Mays. My grandfather, Samuel Chesley Mays, was one of those eleven children. His mother was 44-years-old when Tom was born. Not unheard of these days, but pretty unusual in that time. When Tom was born, apparently he was born with two small kidney stones that immediately threatened his life. Doctors were summoned to the sawmill town of Talley, Texas, all the way from the big town of Longview. They sterilized their instruments and prepared to operate on the tiny, two-day-old baby, right on the kitchen table. They swept off all the regular kitchen implements, did their best to create a sterile environment, and then broke the bad news to Tom’s mother, Lucy: the operation was incredibly risky. There was a good chance the baby might die.

But even as they were explaining all the risks, a miracle happened. Tom passed the two marble-sized kidney stones, and the surgery was averted. His mother proclaimed him a “miracle baby,” and Tom kept those two small stones for the rest of his life, to remind him of how fragile his life was….but more than this, to remind him of what he was certain was the first appearance of his guardian angel.

Tom played baseball and football at Atlanta High School. He played football mainly because his older brothers Sam and Abe were Atlanta High football legends. And, actually, he was pretty good at football too. But, he excelled at baseball. So good was he that he eventually became a pitcher at the University of Texas at Austin.

Tom was also an artist. Early on, Tom learned how not only to paint painting (many of which still hang in the family’s homes), but also how to paint signs. He painted billboards. He painted the “Dr. Pepper” logo on the sides of barns. He got the job painting the gold numbers on every post box in the new Atlanta Post Office.

Although he graduated as the valedictorian of Atlanta High School, he floundered in the year that followed. He spent it at Texarkana Junior College, majoring, in his own words, in “drinking and dancing.” Eventually, this “major” became so much of a concern that my grandfather, Sam, sat his younger brother down, and, as Tom says, “gave me a good dressing down.” He told Tom he was embarrassing the family, and needed to figure out something to do with his life.

This was somewhat problematic, in that the obvious career –working at the Mays Supercash Grocery Store downtown– probably wasn’t realistic. It was difficult for the store to support the two other boys, and there was realistically not space for Tom to join in. So, one day, while Tom was trying to figure out what to do with his life, he stumbled upon Judge Hugh Carney, sitting on a bench outside Miles Drug Store. Tom would later call Judge Carney “an angel,” and said that this encounter would change his life. It was Judge Carney who convinced Tom that what he really ought to do was go into law. Tom’s family worried about this, because they knew they couldn’t help him financially, and they were afraid he might fail.

But through his own hard work painting signs, and waiting tables at an Austin Chinese Restaurant, Tom put managed to put himself through college and law school. And, as in high school, Tom made “all As” at the University of Texas.

He graduated from the law school in 1938 with the higest GPA of any student in 25 years. He graduated in a class that was chock-full of folks who would go on to be famous in Texas and beyond. John Connally was a law school classmate. So was Henry Wade. During law school, Tom became famous because of his class outlines. Tom created a set of study outlines for every law school class he attended, and his friends borrowed and copied them extensively, In fact, Tom remembers visiting the campus, several years after his graduation, and being shown copies of the “Tom Mays outlines” that were still being sold on the student black market.

Tom used to tell folks that John Connally used the outlines to get through law school. He said that Connally was a bit of a playboy who didn’t class much, and that the only reason he graduated was because he used Tom’s outlines. Nobody in the family was ever quite sure whether or not to believe this story. It sounded little like “Big Fish.” But then, low and behold, one time years later Marsha and Craig (Tom’s daughter and son-in-law) were in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They were having dinner in a restaurant, when they looked up to see John and Nellie Connally across the room. So, they went over and introduced themselves as Tom Mays’ children. Connally was apparently quite pleased to see them. They told him the story of the law school outlines and, sure enough John Connally said, “I wouldn’t have made it through law school without Tom Mays.”

Tom was a walk-on player at the University of Texas, under legendary Longhorn Coach Billy Disch. However, by the second year of law school, Tom found himself at a crossroads. He was a good pitcher. Coaches and scouts were encouraging him to consider pursuing baseball further. But, it was getting tough to juggle baseball and law school, and Tom found himself needing to choose one road or the other. He chose law. You get the feeling that, now and then, Tom might have asked himself “what if” about baseballl. But he chose law instead. And he became a fine, young lawyer.

Tom was recruited by prestigious law firms that are still “name” firms to this day: Baker-Botts; and Vinson & Elkins in Houston. He was recruited by the FBI. But even with so many incredible offers out before him, Tom made the choice to come back to Atlanta. He chose to come back and work with his mentor, Judge Carney….and eventually with the Judge’s son, Howard Carney. And, eventually Tom’s son, Jeff, would also join their firm.

Jeff says Tom chose being a lawyer in Atlanta because he knew that he could help people there. Tom saw that there were many lawyers who sometimes forgot why they became lawyers. They had good positions, and lots of prestige, but day-to-day, it was hard for them to see how they helped people. “In Atlanta,” Jeff said, “Tom could always see how he was helping people. He would say, ‘You get so much gratification form helping other people.'”

And Tom really cared for his clients. They couldn’t always pay in cash. And, through the years, the firm took all sorts of interesting forms of payment: eggs, small interest in land, other forms of barter.

He tried many interesting cases as a lawyer. One of the most memorable involved a time when he got a female client off for murder in the neighboring town of New Boston. So enraged by the verdict were the locals of New Boston, that the judge in the case had to order the Texas Rangers to escort Tom and the entire firm all the way back to Atlanta.

In terms of other civic involvement, Tom served as the City Attorney for Atlanta, Texas for sixteen years.

Tom met a beautiful young teacher named Beth Davis almost by accident. One of her double-dates had cancelled, and she invited him to come along. Tom says that he was immediately hooked on her, and knew very early on that he would have to marry her. He proposed to her on Christmas Eve, 1940. They were married on January 1, 1941.

Those of you who know Tom well will appreciate the humor in this next quote. Because in his autobiography, Tom says this about marrying Beth:
“I told Beth that I never intended to marry, but would try it with her and would not mistreat her in any way, and we could get a divorce for nothing if it didn’t work out.”

Well, it sure worked out, didn’t it?!

Tom and Beth were married for sixty four years. A sign in one of the bathrooms of their home reads, “Happiness is being married to your best friend.”

They were best friends. Partners. Lovers. And they were eventually the patriarch and matriarch of a large and beautiful family. Beth loved Tom, and Tom loved Beth. And everyone agrees that it was Beth’s enduring and undying love for him that got him through these last difficult ten years of life.

Tom was not just a lawyer.
He was not just a baseball player.
He was not just an artist.
He was not just an avid reader (who liked to read the Encyclopedia Brittainica for fun…)

Pappa Tom was a good father, and a wonderful grandfather. Pappa Tom taught all his children and grandchildren the valuable lessons of life. He taught them through the telling of stories….stories that always had a point and a moral to them…a moral that was often about the importance of family, honesty, hard work, etc…

The grandchildren remember how he always treated each of them as individuals, and how he was a role model to them of overcoming adversity through hard work and perseverance.

Tom took his boys hunting. He would wake them at 4 am, fix them a big breakfast, and then they’d head out to hunt duck, or quail…but never deer. Tom somehow just could not bear to hunt deer. He taught Jeff about the law. He taught Mark how to play baseball and succeed in Real Estate. He even took Marsha hunting once, although they both admit it wasn’t the best time for either of them.

Tom loved to play “Santa Claus” on Christmas morning, passing out the presents to his large extended family. At the ranch, the family was always trying out new things. They raised cows. The vaccinated their own cows….Tom made the kids get up early on Saturdays, to learn how to do this. They cared for, but never ate, their own cattle. Lots of folks asked Tom about this, but he always said he just couldn’t bear to bring himself to eat a cow that he knew personally.

They farmed strawberries for several years, and folks would come for miles around to buy the strawberries. They had peach orchard for a while. They raised corn for the cows, and green beans and peas to sell at the family store in town.

Tom loved music. He loved jazz music. At UT Austin, he got the chance to see some of the greats at they came through town…Tommy Dorsey, Bennie Goodman…Duke Ellington. Tom remembers seeing them all as they came through town. He loved art too. When he was in the army in Paris, during World War II, he took time out to visit the great museums of Paris.

Tom taught the Men’s Bible Class at First Methodist, Atlanta for fifty years. Marsha remembers how when she’d come home from college with friends, he’d fix them all a big steak dinner, and then return to his work, studying for his Sunday morning lesson.

In many ways, then, when you look at the totality of his life, Tom was a true “Renaissance Man.” He passed on a thirst for life, a thirst for knowledge, to all his children and grandchildren. Through his hard work, he taught them, and through the stories he told.

Tom wrote his own autobiography some years back. It’s full of many more amazing stories that I did not get to recount here (like he time he worked for the equivalent of “Homeland Security” during part of WWII, and tailed a Nazi suspect to private home in Dallas. He and his partner snuck around back to get a better look a the suspects, and climbed up a tree. But, they fell out when the branch broke, and had to run away before getting caught…)

At the end of his autobiography, Tom sums up his own life in this way:
“Few men have been blessed as I have been. I know about God’s forgiveness and I accept it. I have never chosen to harbor resentment or hatred toward anybody, and I love people of all races and religions, and I have always been honest with my fellow man. Judge Carney told me that any many who is honest and pays his debts is far above average. He also said he knew he would go to heaven; because he believed in the Bible and its promises; and that he might not have a front row seat in heaven, but he would be on the back row. I accepted his philosophy.
My final wish in this life is that my children will take care of Beth after I am gone, and that they will continue to value and love and cherish each other as long as they live. We will leave some worldly goods when we are gone, but I pray that none of it will cause any problems with my children, and that they will be fair with each other. I have seen so many families split up over a few dollars or assets left to them by their parents. This is so wrong, and there is no viable reason on this earth for it to happen.
Life is short, and love and devotion to family is the greatest asset you will ever have, and should never be neglected.”

I said at the beginning that Tom believe in angels, and he did. He believed he had a Guardian Angel. It visited and guided him at his birth, but also at many other times in his life….

….when he almost drowned at Barton Springs, in Austin, while in college. A stranger rescued him, then vanished into the crowd….
…when crossing the Atlantic, on the way to Paris in World War II, two plane engines blew out, and they made an emergency stop in London…
…when coming back from the War, and he learned that his ship of passage –the USS George Washington– sank in New York harbor, just days after all the soldiers disembarked…

Christmas is a time of angels. Christmas is a time of inescapable good news. But this year, it’s mixed with sadness for us too. But Christmas was always mixed with joy and sadness for Tom. While we should remember that Tom and Beth were, indeed, engaged on a Christmas Eve, Tom’s mother also died on December 26th one year. And so, in the midst of our own sadness this day, let us remember that Tom always lived with Christmas joy and sorrows too.

And I believe the Christmas Angels are with us this day, just as Tom’s Guardian Angel was always with him. They tell us to remember that Tom lived a good and full life….old enough to remember horses and buggies on the streets of Atlanta, and Armistice Day of World War I, he lived a long and good ninety-two-years.

They are telling us what the Christmas Angels aways tell us: Fear not.

Joy and sorrow are always tied together, even at Christmas.

And even as we grieve this day, we still give thanks for the good life of Tom Mays.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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