Farewell to a Friend

“When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.” — William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet”

Written by Leslie Criss Photograph Courtesy of Regional Rehabilitation Center

I had been in Tupelo only a short time when I was invited to an annual Christmas gathering hosted by two new friends in Guntown. I did what I suppose other introverts do at well-attended parties: I found a good spot for observing, took a seat and let the curious and convivial come to me.

About two hours later, the party was not winding down, but I was. Suddenly the front door opened and I watched as a tall, slender man swaddled in a flowing, full-length fur coat and clutching a cane made an entrance. In those long-ago days when a virus called COVID-19 was not yet a blip on our radar, holiday hugs and pecks on cheeks flourished. And though a newcomer, I was not excluded by this elegant Southern gentleman spreading cheer.

That pre-Christmas peck on the cheek was the first of many I’d receive over the next 20 years from this wonder of humanity who became a friend of my heart.

My story is not unique. I am almost certain that every person who met Tom Evans came to love him quickly and dearly. It was simply inevitable.

When Tom died August 5, after a brief hospitalization for pneumonia, the hearts of hundreds cracked as all whose lives this Tupelo treasure touched mourned.

To describe Tom for those who did not know him is a worthy task, though words will not translate into the dapper, debonair ball of energy that was Tom Evans.

The first line of his obit, lovingly penned by Steve Holland, provides a strong start: “Like Elvis, Cher, Beyonce or Liberace, Tupelo and northeast Mississippi simply and profoundly knew, loved and respected him as the one and only TOM!”

A pharmacist by profession, Tom worked as such for more than three decades until a bad fall at his home sidelined him from his chosen work.

Tom did not, however, plop himself into an easy chair to rest the remainder of his amazing life. He stayed busy in the affairs of his community.

A longtime board member of Regional Rehabilitation Center (and secretary/treasurer for 25 years), Tom hosted a gathering at his beautiful, antiques-filled home as a fundraiser for RRC 20 years ago. The Kentucky Derby Party, with hats, juleps and loads of fun, became an annual tradition and major fundraiser for Regional Rehab.

I wonder if anyone loved a social gathering as much as Tom? Rest assured, he hosted many. One to which I had a standing invitation was Bourbon and Hymns.

I once took my Southern-Baptist-turned-Episcopalian dad along to the monthly soiree. It was always the third Sunday at 5 p.m. We gathered in the music room, sitting shoulder to shoulder, with no thoughts of social distancing. Tom was our director, usually from his place at one of his two grand pianos; Steve Holland often joined in on the Hammond organ.

For an hour or so, we’d call out page numbers of our favorite old hymns and we’d sing our hearts out until Tom said it was time for refreshments. There was always a spread laid out of delicious finger foods and Tom’s special Bourbon slush. A bourbon drinker I am not, but I have already requested someone locate that recipe and pass it around.

Though a Methodist from boyhood, Tom later in life became an Episcopalian and served on the Flower Guild at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, just down the street and around the corner from his Robins Street home.

He was a back-pew sitter, while I preferred mid-way, but I’d always get a Tom hug and kiss when we’d meet up after the Sunday service. One of my favorite Tom memories involves the Sunday mornings Tom was running late getting from the parish hall to the church. From my peripheral vision through a stained-glass window, I would notice a swiftly moving flash pass by on the sidewalk bordering the church parking lot. Moments later, the church door would open and in would roll Tom in his motorized wheelchair.

When I think of my friendship with Tom, I have only one regret: I wish I had met him earlier so I could have known him longer. He was kind and caring, gentle yet strong-willed, a man of impeccable tastes and a wry and witty sense of humor. He was also generous to a fault.

He was giving my friend Cheryl a tour of his home a year or so ago. I tagged along. In one room, Tom opened a tall armoire that was filled from top to bottom and from side to side with what looked to be a hundred or so sweaters. A sweater lover myself, I commented on one I’d seen him wear to church before. He reached in, pulled it out and told me he wanted me to have it. I cherish it and call it Tom’s sweater of many colors.

On Friday, Aug. 7, not long before the sun set, many of us who loved Tom, donning masks and respecting our distances, arrived at the Sadie J Farm in Plantersville, where Steve Holland hosted an outside funeral service, Episcopal in nature, complete with communion, but some gospel music thrown in for good measure.

He was buried nearby under a canopy of trees in a spot he’d chosen years earlier. Then there were refreshments. It was an evening Tom would have loved.