My first encounter with Don Thomas was at a basketball game in what passed for the gym of North Elementary. The building housed grades one through eight back then, and only the upper-level students were allowed to attend things like basketball games, mainly because there wasn’t enough room for everyone and still have the floor clear for the game. Don was two or three years older than I was and on this particular day was seated behind me in the terribly uncomfortable wooden folding chairs that were bolted in rows to the floor. And he decided it would be really funny if he started kicking the back of my seat. Constantly. I don’t remember if one of the teachers spotted him or if I’d finally had enough and turned around to yell at him. Probably the latter. But whatever happened, one of the teachers knew and the episode went from her lips to his grandmother’s ears in record time, mainly because she was one of the seventh and eighth grade teachers at the school.
I got a phone call that evening with an apology I pretended not to understand, so he had to specifically, in great detail, recount what he had done. Who knew that a decade or so later this aggravating elementary school kid would be my brother-in-law?
Don was the super smart one of the three boys. My husband was the gifted sports human, and their younger brother Tim was the one who could take the vacuum cleaner apart and reassemble it—or anything else, for that matter. I don’t know if he ever did, but he could have if he’d wanted to. And it would have still worked. Probably better than it did before. We used to joke that Don was going to be a career student, having graduated from Bethel then enrolling in the Memphis Theological Seminary and then on to Boston College for his doctorate. Or was it Boston University?
See, that was the problem. We knew the Don we always saw at Christmas and Thanksgiving, the Don that found his soulmate later in life and enjoyed 22 years of married bliss. The one that loved to read and travel and enjoyed cooking (his marinated green beans always made the trip home for the holidays). The one who managed to find the humor in every situation. We didn’t know the Don who went to college and went to work and the wheres and whens and whats of his life. And that makes it a bit more challenging when you’re called upon to write the traditional “he did this on this date, and he did that on that date” obituary. Which I was unfortunately asked to do after his very unexpected death on November 11th.
But you know what that does mean? His obituary is more about Don the person than what Don the person did in his lifetime. I managed to find some of the dates and associated things on the cover of the book he wrote about the history of the Olive Hill Cumberland Presbyterian Church. And I scoured his Facebook page for tidbits I could include. But the more I read and the more I scrolled the more I thought about his wonderfully cheesy sense of humor and the brilliance of his mind and his love for his God and his family, especially for his wife Nancy who had made an equally sudden departure in December of 2019.
This year we’ll spend Don’s birthday chauffeuring him to Germantown so his Shelby County friends will have an opportunity to say goodbye. His brother—my husband—will drive the hearse while my daughter and I follow along behind. And on Thursday we’ll all gather in Savannah to bid farewell to a most unique individual who, with dignity and grace and faith and love, weathered the storms Life sent his way. We’ll share our memories and laugh at the stories and honor his legacy with gratitude for the years we had . . . and grief over those we won’t. All in all, it will be a good day, albeit a sad one given the circumstances. But Don will be reunited with his Nancy (although I’m fairly certain they were never truly parted), without the pain and the struggles that had become his life in recent years. And how can we not celebrate that?
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.