I’ve spent a lot of time with Tom Scamihorn over the years, most of it sitting in the right front seat of a school bus while he drove a load of loud kids down the road to a ball game, museum or academic contest. You get to know a little about a man when he’s behind the wheel next to you, particularly one who’s lived an extraordinarily active life.
Tom is retiring this year — not earth-shaking news, in itself, when I consider that three of my other friends are also moving on in their lives, and one is even a few weeks younger than I am. But Tom is different; he’s had so many jobs in his lifetime that he can’t remember them all. He’s driven a bus, though — often on a route, but mostly for field trips and to sporting events — for the last 22 years, not a remarkable thing unless you consider that he didn’t really begin driving for Southwest Parke Community School Corp. until he was 66 years old.
At 88, Tom has no intention of giving up his driver’s license anytime soon, nor should he. In fact, he’s planning to just keep on working around his place, cutting wood for his stove and mowing a little grass and driving wherever he needs to go. He lost his wife, Genevieve, last August — they’d been married 64 years — and thought for a time he’d sell his big place and move closer to his daughter, who lives in Columbus, Indiana. After all, they had been making that 240-mile round trip for visits together every other weekend for more than 20 years anyway. But for now, he’s going to stay put. “I have plenty to do around here,” he said.
Tom amazes me; he goes where he wants to go, does what he wants to do, and eats whatever he wants to eat. I don’t think he knows what it is to take a pill or go to the doctor. An avid wood-cutter and splitter — he’s heated his rural Parke County home through his own labor — he can hardly recall a day in his life when he didn’t feel like working. He “retired” from Alcan (now Novelis) once, then went back for another five years. “I went back because I liked the work and liked the place,” he says. He spent 10 years there as a maintenance man, but then served as a supervisor for 15 more.
“Oh, I guess I have never really retired,” Tom added. “I’ve been busy my whole life, and I want to keep being busy.”
Although there’s no way of knowing how many miles Tom has driven his school buses, it is true that a conservative number of the field trips he’s chauffeured is well over a thousand, his last coming May 15 when he took the track team for a meet at Seeger High School, a long drive that involved a late night.
“I enjoy driving,” Tom said. “I enjoy being around the kids because they keep me young. Bob (“Goose”) Yowell asked me to drive for him years ago, and I told him I’d give it a try. I didn’t know it would get into my blood and that I’d be doing it this long.”
Tom has been a lot of places in his life besides those he’s traveled to by bus. After his mother died when he was 15, he left Terre Haute with a sister to live with an uncle in Indianapolis. “My dad worked hard, but there were six of us, and he didn’t make enough to feed one,” he said. “I guess I’ve been working since I was about six,” saying he remembered selling eggs out of a bucket through the neighborhood to make extra money for the family.
Tom’s time in the state capital didn’t last long. He walked out of his classes at Broad Ripple High School in 1943 to join the Navy at age 17. “It sure was different for a 17-year-old kid like me to be on a big ship out of Pearl Harbor,” Tom said. He was aboard the USS Boggs, a destroyer that had served part of the war as a minesweeper, but was a destroyer again by the time Tom was on her. “We weren’t in any big battles, but we chased a few subs around; we did our part,” he said.
Back in Terre Haute after the war (he was discharged in 1946), Tom went right to work. He held down jobs at the paper mill (several times), the heavy water plant near Newport, worked construction in West Virginia for a year, then finally got on at Alcan. He told me that he and Genevieve had some “hard times” when they were young, and he knew that work was the only way out of them. “Besides, I like to work,” he said.
In a few more years, there are going to be even fewer men like Tom around. It is a staggering fact that nearly a thousand veterans of the Second World War are dying every day in this country. But I don’t mean only that this “Greatest Generation” includes those who served in that greatest of wars. It was a generation of men and women who believed in working, believed that to earn their own keep and make their own way was the only way to do things. It is the trait in Tom that, perhaps, I admire the most.
When I think of Tom, it makes me even more appreciative on this Memorial Day for the men I’ve known who are a lot like him. Men like Dick Howk and Bill Engle and Perry Huxford and Leighton Willhite, who near or past 90, believed in fighting for their country years and years ago, but then came back home to lives of hard work. What examples they’ve been to me, and to a lot of others.
When I asked Tom to tell me what it meant to serve his country during the war, what it meant to him to be a veteran, he hesitated a while and simply said, “Well, it’s kind of hard to put into words.”
It sure is.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory
firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808.
Go to his website at www.mikelunsford.com to learn more about his books.