An Essay About Tom

We Love and Miss Him

Tom 2001

John Sylvest's Essay on Tom

John S. Sylvest
321 N. Millet Ave.
Gramercy, Louisiana


To Whom It May Concern:

I was blessed and privileged to have known Tom Murray for close to twenty years. I knew him as a next door neighbor, then as a neighbor, as my children would say, across the ditch. I knew him as a father to my childrenís friends, as a husband to a life-long friend. I knew him as a swim instructor and coach to each of my four children. I knew him as an ctive participant in my worshipping and believing community at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and as a volunteer in our local civic community. Tom was a very good friend of my wife, Veronica; they spent hours on the phone managing projects and solving problems for others.

Tom was my friend, too. Still is.

Let me tell you a little bit about him although I donít suggest I could pour the ocean of this manís love into this teacup of an essay. However, I would like to attempt to make, below, the strongest possible statement about the beauty and truth and goodness that Tom brought into the lives he touched.

Among all the men in our little hometown, to me, he stood out as especially enlightened. After a visit and conversation with him, I always left edified and hope-filled. Tom would have been willing to run for local political office in order to serve but he had some misgivings about the popularity aspects of such campaigns. For him, doing and saying the right thing was more important than winning popularity contests. Tom would speak out against racial bigotry. Tom would speak out about alcohol at graduation parties. Tom would write letters to the newspaper defending the otherwise defenseless victims of injustice.

If, as so many have testified, Thomas Michael Murray was a walking Gospel, he was also a living Epistle. As much as we were gifted by his manifold ministries, we were also privileged to catch frequent glimpses of his thoughts and philosophies; Tom told us what was on his mind. He did so with wit and humor. He did so with a clear and unconcealed teaching purpose.

Certainly, he was a teacher in both deed and word. Much could be caught from Tom and much was taught by him. Truly, Tom was a living Gospel example. His words, spoken and written, will remain, for us, a holy epistolary. All of us can hear him, even now. Even now, as we get into this situation or that, we somehow know precisely which pieces of his large repertoire of humorous instruction or reproof or commentary he'd gift us with. Consolingly, that repertoire still echoes in our hearts and minds. Among those of us who are believers, it is not an echo of his voice from the past but his new and active presence among us, informing our thoughts, inspiring our dreams and waking us from our nightmares.

His children, my children, the children he coached, all still have grand fun imitating Tom's railings and ramblings, his quips and gibes, the whimsical and gentle "negative spins" he could place on his and others' worldly foibles, always with a sparkle in his eye and usually with a tongue in his cheek. I can imagine him saying, like Rossellini: "I am not a pessimist; to perceive evil where it exists is, in my opinion, a form of optimism." and I am reminded of the Samuel Lover phrase: "reproof on her lip but a smile in her eye."

Beyond his words, assuredly were his deeds: "Awake, my soul and with the sun thy daily stage of duty run" - (Thomas Ken).

Tom Murray knew duty. Duty was his raison díÍtre.

Tom welcomed life as a gift and lived it as a total return, a reciprocation that began anew with each breath his Creator would let him draw. This perpetual process of giving back what he received is the paragon of stewardship. The story of Tom's life is the story of stewardship in the context of community, both in the primary community of his beloved family and in the community-at-large. He lived the beatitudes and abounded with the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, patience, gentleness, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self control.

In order to better understand Tom's story of stewardship, I think it is important for others to know some of the philosophical threads that ran through the fabric of his life. Tom was both very progressive and very conservative, but not enigmatically so. There was no ambiguity in his approach to right and wrong and no ambivalence in the manner of his commitment of time, talent and treasure.

Tom was progressive and forward-looking in his social outlook and believed and acted strongly on principles of inclusivity. He cared deeply about the unfortunate and the marginalized and he demonstrated this depth in visits to shut-ins. On several occasions, in discussing his vision for the recreational programs he was so heavily invested in, he expressed to me his chagrin and regret at what he felt was his and our failing to better reach out and include the black children of our community in the swimming programs for both lessons and competition. His love for disadvantaged children was not just local but universal; his refrigerator was covered with pictures of children from other places who were financial beneficiaries of Tom's sincere benevolence. Tom was devoted to his community of faith, both in worship and spiritual ministry, both in spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

He was perhaps most well known for his lavish and prodigal investment of time in both summer and high school swim leagues. He coached our state champions with his beloved spouse, Joan. Dozens upon dozens of the children, on the local swim teams, had their first experience in the water with Tom's hands both pulling on their flippers and dragging them through, what I can only guess is, uncountable miles of shallow water. Others have noted his perennial presence at that pool, whether in or out of his US Customs uniform, whether in early morning, at his lunchbreak or after the sun went down. Mr. Tom did every task, the menial and the more lofty, from cleaning toilets and building benches to seeding the heat sheets in preparation for the meets. His commitment never flagged or wavered and his engaged presence was the same toward the little tikes as it was toward his state champion "dynasty" (as we all came fond of calling it).

Tom's life tapestry, as I mentioned, did not just have a progressive and social activist leaning; he also grabbed those conservative threads which he thought could best advance the common good. There were several of these threads and they well-characterized his approach to stewardship. This conservatism was pronounced, and almost exaggeratedly so, to the point of even being a little comical to those closest to him and able to see it in action. It was part and parcel of what endeared him to so many of us. It was evident in manifold ways, for instance, and perhaps most notably, with respect to finances, to health and safety, and to family values.

To the extent Tom's fiscal house was in order, it was perhaps most evident by what his loved ones have humorously described as a Sanford & Son "disorder". Tom's frugality was legendary. The automotive junkyard attendants had a true client in Tom Murray and the solid waste collection personnel had a fierce competitor for the treasures that could be theirs, if only they could beat Tom to this or that curbside. He picked up every penny, however encrusted or disfigured. (Jeepers! Heís even got me doing it, probably Tara and Caleb, too!) When my six year old upbraided me one day with "One man's trash is another man's treasure.", I had little doubt in my mind where he'd picked that one up!

When it came to health and safety matters, again, Tom was on the ball. erhaps he knew more about these things from being married to a healthcare professional but one truly suspects he'd have known such things anyway. Much of the community's incredulity, which accompanied the tragic news of his accident, arose from people's heightened awareness of Tom's incredibly cautious approach to almost everything. My wife's first comments, after she composed herself upon learning the news, expressed her belief at how something must have been terribly awry to catch Tom Murray unawares. The parents of the community trusted him implicitly to ensure their own children's safety at the pool, whether from the water itself, the chemicals, the sun or from exposures of which we hadn't even conceived. Tom knew and stressed the importance of conditioning, of diet and lifestyle. I now because I amusedly benefited from his lectures regarding his own boys' lapses, long after they had removed themselves from earshot (At least I know my kidneys and other internal organs are glad. Dustin, you take care of yourself, pal!). Tom was equally conscientious about motor vehicle safety, self-defense and workaday world precautions. Truly, it is such an ironic and cruel twist of fate that we should have had him taken from us by accident. Still, if you listen carefully, you can hear him insisting that we take this tragedy, learn its lessons and have whomever make whatever changes might be required that it may never be repeated.

Tom's other major conservative leaning was with respect to values. He was a man of time-honored tradition, of duty to country, fidelity to family, loyalty to friends. The most concise testimonial to this is contained in the quote: "When we persevere and act from our convictions and from our integrity we change the world in a way that we may never fully comprehend." It is here that our inventory of what Tom said and what Tom did seems so inadequate, for it is who he was and continues to be, in relationship, that most clearly defines what he meant and still means to those whom he touched and still touches. Tom was a complete human being. Not immune from failures and disappointments, he taught us how to transcend them and move on, how to forgive and seek forgiveness. Tom was a son, a brother, a spouse, a father (step-fathering was not in his vocabulary), a grandfather and he lived fully, those and other consanguinal family roles. He loved Rainy Lake and the North Land and had so much love and excitement in his voice and eyes when he spoke to me of his upcoming trip to Minnesota for Jackís 80th birthday. He was passionately in love with his family. He was a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker and employee, a civic volunteer, a coach, a minister and so very fully lived those and other roles in the community, too. In all of these roles, people have come forward to testify that, above all, Thomas Michael Murray was a holy and perfect gift from God:

Thomas Murray made the ultimate sacrifice for our agency and our country. James Hynes, US Customs Service

For as much as Tom contributed to the Customs Service, and the protection of our nation, I know that he will be remembered even more for what he gave his family and his community. Robert C. Bonner, Commissioner of US Customs

You taught us all the essence of life, and we love you. You are the Best man I have ever known. Tyler Murray, Son

Tom was always rooting for the underdog. And oh how he did so much to make that world a better place for the rest of us. Nicholas Slie, Stepson

As one of his children, we just did not know ... I realize how humble he was. Today was the ultimate lesson in humility. Jessica Slie, Stepdaughter

Everything that I am today is because of his belief in me and because he loved me so deeply. Joan Murray, Spouse

We call these different capacities for relationship "roles" but Tom transcended being a mere role-player. None of us are merely our roles. I think a theme has emerged, as revealed by the many who have come forward to share their experience of Tom; he was always himself; had no facades; he didn't play games; he took life and love seriously; he was the same genuine and caring person to all.

In short, Tom Murray's life was an open book. Those of us who read this book have had an encounter with the incarnate Word and we will never be the same.

Tom's mission statement was concise and to the point. It begins with an attitude of gratitude and ends with an implicit command for us to provide one another sustenance, for us to lift one another up. It's how he lived and he invites us each to follow:

"We thank you for our family, our friends and our faith. May they sustain us in our deepest despair as readily as they lift us up in our moments of greatest joy." Thomas Michael Murray

Amen. Tom. Amen!

Most sincerely and respectfully,

John Sobert Sylvest
December 2001

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