Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tom Mullen: In Memoriam

I received the first of a string of bad news phone calls yesterday afternoon. The first was that Tom Mullen, former dean of Earlham School of Religion and beloved Quaker minister, had been life-lined via helicopter from Richmond to Methodist Hospital in Indianapols. My friend who called said, "I doesn't look good." In updates from other friends throughout the afternoon and evening, it became apparent how bad it was -- cerebral bleeding, a stoke, in a deep coma, on life support. It was hoped he would survive until his family could gather.

He did, but not much longer. I got the call this morning that he had died.

A true loss.

I first met Tom on a rainy autumn day in 1978. I was visiting Earlham School of Religion, thanks to constant phone calls from Keith Esch, and thinking about transferring there. When I came downstairs after visiting with the man who would be my advisor, there on the floor sat a fellow in blue jeans and not-new shirt, playing with my 3 year old son. Benji, as he was known back then, was vastly entertained by this fellow -- his ready laugh, silly expressions, and willingness to play with a little kid. As we gathered Benji up to head home, and loaded him and us into the car, I asked my wife, "Who was that?" "Tom Mullen," she said. "One of the professors." Well, Tom didn't look like one of the professors -- at least my image of what they should look like. And yet he, probably among all the instructors I had there, influenced my life and ministry the most.

One of my next encounters with Tom was after transferring to Earlham School of Religion. It was while playing basketball with the ESR "team" -- "Yahweh's Warriors" (good name for a bunch of Quaker-types, eh?). I remember a good outside jumpshot, sharp elbows, a passion for the game, and more than a few fouls that never seemed to be called. I endeavored to make sure I was on his team everthereafter.

I read Tom's books and laughed out loud -- as did most every Christian who read them. At least those of us who note the absurdity of life sometimes and silliness of our earnestly making our way through them. Most of his books were funny, but they had a depth and spiritual nuance that too many readers (and critics!) missed. They saw the stories, but failed to notice the spiritual layering that anchored them.

I took Tom's "Writing for the Religious Market" class, which, in a very big way launched my writing career. While arguing with him one day over lunch about whether there was any value in rock and roll music (he was agin' it), he said that while my arguments did not convince him, he thought they were interesting and would make a good book. If I'd write, he said, he'd see that some editors saw it. So I did and he did and one of them bought it and Rock and Roll: Proceed with Caution became one of my biggest selling books.

One of the things I so loved about Tom was his sense of fun -- from telling jokes to just having fun. He taught me how to use humor wisely and well. And didn't seemed too bothered that I was sort of a smart ass. Indeed, he even seemed to appreciate that part of me and didn't act like it detracted from the possibility that I might be an effective pastor and writer. He encouraged me to find that part of my writing voice that had humor in it. When I wrote my third book, Lunch Is My Favorite Subject, I made the setting the fictional Mullenville High School in honor of Tom (a dubious honor, I know) and tried out my humor voice. One which I've kept for many years, in varying degrees, depending on the book.

Tom quickly became my writing coach, my mentor, and my friend. He always instructed me wisely and well -- and kindly, too. Even when I messed up -- which was often -- I could count on his counsel to be true, but caring.

I often joked that I modeled my life after Tom's -- Tom wrote, so I wrote. Tom married a woman (actually 2!) named Nancy, so I married a woman named Nancy. He had diabetes, so I got diabetes. He gave humorous after dinners speeches, I gave after dinner speeches. He taught writing at Earlham School of Religion, I taught writing at Earlham School of Religion. When he got Crohn's Disease though, I told him I was done imitating him.

And while my life has not really been an imitation of Tom Mullen's, I could have done far worse than imitating him. His kindness, ready wit, caring, love of his family, generous Christian faith, and so much more make him a hero of the faith to me. The kind of man that I hope to grow into.

I have a ton of wonderful Tom Mullen memories -- as does everybody who knew Tom. And today I am beset with a grief that is deep and profound. I loved Tom. I love Tom. I will miss him in this life. The thought of not seeing him at Earlham School of Religion or Yearly Meeting or some other Quaker gathering fills me with a huge sadness. No more hearing the same old jokes, but told with a brand new enthusiasm and twinkle in his eye. Not in this life.

A wise prophet once wrote, "He is worthy of Paradise who makes his companions laugh." If that's the case, then, if I get there, I'd like my room next to Tom's, please."

Godspeed, Tom. Blessings on your new adventure. I look forward to hearing some new stories from you when I arrive.

Love, Brent

PS Yes, Tom, I know that you and Zinnsser would say there's too much "clutter" in this piece (and some misspellings) -- deal with it.


Betsy Blake said...


Deborah Suess said...

Brent, Thank you for those words on Tom. He and Nancy were our neighbors and we couldn't have found better nor funnier nor gentler neighbors. Tom taught me the most practical lessons at ESr: slide my paper to the side when preaching. Oh Tom - you are so missed already.

Zeke said...

Tom and Nancy were our scholars-in-residence at Reedwood Friends Church in April and May. It was a pleasure and a privilege to get to know Tom and Nancy. Many of us knew Tom for many years. Others met Tom for the first time this Spring. Tom was one of those people who disciple by example. I'm a better person and a better Christian for having known him.

Becky Belcher said...

Brent, thank you for these deeply felt thoughts about Tom. I just found out about his death yesterday afternoon, and am having a very hard time dealing with this heavy loss. When I attended Earlham College from 1970-1974, Tom became an advisor and counselor to me when I was going through a rocky time. As busy as he was at ESR, he set aside a weekly time for me to meet with him and just talk. His caring, support, advice and willingness to listen got me through those years. I also became involved in Meeting House Cabinet which met in Tom and Nancy's home every Tuesday. I looked forward to those get-togethers - Tom and Nancy opened their home to so many young people and gave us the feeling of being in a home away from home. After graduation I made numerous trips back to Earlham and stayed and Tom and Nancy's frequently. Over the years the trips became fewer and I lost touch with him, although never in my thoughts and memories. A few years ago, we got in contact again through the internet, and had been e-mailing each other pretty regularly up through early Spring of this year. I was going to finally see him again, and meet his new wife, Nancy, when I went to Richmond for my 35th reunion in October. It is so painful to know that now I will never see him, talk with him and laugh with him again. It helps to share the sorrow with others who have known and loved Tom.

PattyK said...

Brent, thank you for this moving and fitting tribute to our dear friend Tom. I share your grief, and yet, your words have just the right touch of humor to honor the teacher who always brought a smile to our faces and a lift to our hearts. Tom would love this post. :~)

Liz Opp said...

I'm sorry I didn't know Tom. Your relationship with him reminds me of my own with my dear friend and "private elder" Barbara Greenler.

Still, I'm glad I've gotten to know you and perhaps, by extension, a bit of Tom.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Gregg Keesling said...

Tom Mullen was my father's roommate at Earlham in the late 50's. He played an important role in my life

Brent Bill said...

Thanks for sharing, Greg.