A Good Neighbor

The Presbyterian Church was full for Tom Clay's funeral, with many people taking time from work to be there. Tom would have been surprised. He was a quiet guy - hardworking, with little use for small talk. "Down to earth" is how one friend put it. "Unassuming" said another.

Tom's 10-year-old granddaughter played "When the Saints Go Marching In" on the flute. Pastor Butler gave the eulogy and quoted John Donne, reminding mourners that the bell "indeed does toll for each of us." After "Amazing Grace", Father Blaney, from the Catholic Church, said the benediction. Then the volunteer fire department rescue squad, which Tom was a member of, carried the casket out of the church into the old ambulance that doubles as a hearse. At the cemetery, the American Legion color guard fired a last salute and Tom's eight grown children each dropped a red rose into the grave.

Tom lived alone in town since his wife died seven years ago. They had lived for years in a small settlement at Mosquito Lake, 26 miles out the road. When he was younger, Tom worked at the now defunct sawmill, but in his " retirement" he discovered a new calling: taking care of people. He worked for a home care organization, and volunteered countless extra hours helping his neighbors.

As I wrote Tom's obituary for the Chilkat Valley News, our weekly 12-page paper, one of Tom's friends told me "Tom looked after people, especially, I'm not sure how to say this, the disabled or under privileged, or whatever you say. He was a giver who gave more than he took in life."

Raymond Sheppard has struggled with daily tasks since a childhood accident. He is friendly, often speaking in riddles to passers by and usually offering his own quirky blessing "just remember three people love you -- the father, the son and a "Shepherd" named Raymond. You have a very love-el-ee day." Raymond shovels snow off the Main Street sidewalk in the winter and occasionally greets summer cruise ship passengers dressed in an eagle costume.

Tom took Raymond out to breakfast every day, "Tom Clay was a real Christian man" Raymond says. "He had to be to put up with a character like me. I'm not ashamed to say I cried when I heard the news."

Most people in Haines, myself included, were surprised to learn the extent of Tom's kindness. Taking care of his neighbors was not a burden for him.

Raymond says that at breakfast one morning he he offered to pay for the meal. Tom explained that it was already taken care of, Raymond's family provided a stipend for his services. "Tom was worried I'd be sad," Raymond said. "He told me he'd pay for breakfast out of his own pocket if it would make me feel better. I said to him heck no, it's the least I can do for such a fine, exceptional friend."

Tom assumed a special role at the fire department too. He often stayed behind with a victim's family or friends after an emergency, rather than head straight back to the fire hall. One of his fellow volunteers said it's hard to understand how valuable that is. "I mean, it's not like we say to someone else - O.K., now you're going to be the extra nice guy'."

When he worked at the sawmill, on a hazardous piece of equipment used to band units of lumber nicknamed "the squeeze"; Tom earned the trust of fellow mill hands. One says "my life was in his hands many, many times. He was an island of safety in a very dangerous place."

At work, Tom was methodical and capable. "He could do anything at the mill," an old co-worker said. "But he didn't brag about it. He'd just do it."

Tom also was a decorated Korean conflict veteran. He served as an Air Force navigator and won the Good Conduct Medal. Typically, he never said much about it. "He was shot down and had quite a time over there" a friend says. "But that's all I know, he mentioned it once and never said anything else." Tom's son Brian is in the Army National Guard and was called up after September 11 to help with airport security in Ketchikan. When his father died, they flew him to Haines in a military helicopter. Another son, Robert, traveled to the funeral from Pennsylvania, with his wife and six-week-old son, named after Tom.

He'll have some big shoes to fill.

As our former Mayor Fred Shields says, "people like Tom -- who quietly do things in the background to support a community -- they are simply not replaceable."

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