In the autumn of 2016, I was seated in a banquet room in Denver at a convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado, swigging beer number three (or was it four) listening to Kevan Worley, the bumptious and loquacious master of ceremonies, as he berated the sound guys from the stage.
“Hey! Sound guys! I’m just gonna say…Where we are…where we wanna be!” he bellowed. Then he said, “If our sound guys can handle it, we’d love for anyone listening on our stream to give us a call on Skype and say hi.”
I pulled out my phone and sent a text. “You should call in,” I wrote.
Two minutes later (or was it five) my phone rang. I answered and the warm, familiar voice said in my ear, “What’s the number?”
Five minutes later (or was it 10), Kevan eagerly grabbed the mic (again) and said, “Folks, we have a guy on Skype who wants to say hi. Maybe you remember him. Tom Anderson, from Kansas.”
The room exploded in the loudest ovation that I’d ever heard at an NFB convention anywhere. It was a riotous, joyous shriek that kept going and going. Eventually, much of the crowd burst into the chant, “TOSTY! TOSTY! TOSTY!” In my beer-fogged brain, I remember a thought emerging; this is the most authentic, heartfelt cheer I’ve ever heard at a convention. At the point, Tom had been absent from Colorado for almost 18 months.
In May, 2015, Miles Thomas Anderson retired from the Colorado Center for the Blind as a Braille instructor after a 27-year career. I left work early to attend the party. It was a strange, almost surreal affair that was dampened by an accidental power outage that left the CCB in total darkness throughout the entire proceedings. The good lord was making a statement that was unmistakable. The CCB was losing a light that could never be replaced.
Tom could often seem nonplussed when speaking publicly, but he took the occasion with his usual good grace and humble humor. The party was well-attended, including many VIPs from the national office in Baltimore. Many of his former students were in attendance as well. It was clear that Tom was leaving a professional legacy that was vibrant and strong. I remember the speeches from the leadership seeming canned and perfunctory, counter to the tributes from his students, which all seemed natural and sincere.
A year before Tom’s retirement party, I was hired as a summer counselor for the CCB youth program. I was set to be a cane travel instructor. It was the most tempestuous, heartbreaking three months of my life. Two weeks of training were not nearly enough to prepare me when the students came to the CCB. On the third day after they arrived, a latecomer named Andrew joined us. He was a soft-spoken lad who seemed overwhelmed by everything at the center. At one point I asked him, “How ya doing?” He said, “I haven’t even had a tour yet.”
So, I gave him the nickel tour. At one point, we came to the braille room in the basement, in which were housed shelf upon shelf of braille volumes. Andrew and I walked through the door and were greeted by Tom’s customary, “Hi, Ryan.” It was at that point, with the smell of the library in my nostrils and Tom’s warm greeting in my ears, that I began to relax a little.
After Tom explained the braille room, I sent Andrew upstairs and lingered with Tom for a moment.
“How you doing?” he asked.
“Tom, I think I’m in over my head,” I said as I exhaled a cloud of pent-up anxiety.
“Well, you’ll be alright. Just take it one day at a time and try your best to listen to what your students are telling you.”
As I walked out of Tom’s library I thought, if I could be half the teacher that Tom was, I would count it as a win.
As it turned out, I didn’t even come close. Not even in the ballpark. But then, Tom Anderson was (and is) a tough act to follow. He was a steady, unassuming leader without exuding the forceful qualities that are so often sought and projected within the power players of the NFB. There was nothing artificial or disingenuous about Tom Anderson. When he spoke in his halting, tentative style, you knew that he was not selling you anything that he did not believe in his own heart. When he spoke of the history of the National Federation of the Blind, he spoke with love and affection. When he imparted the NFB’s positive philosophy of self-empowerment, he spoke in the spirit of gentility, not in hackneyed clichés. When he spoke critically of the organization, there was no self-serving aspect to it. Tom did not trash talk other people for his own personal gain, even when they deserved it. His honesty was always tinged with compassion and an empathy that came from a real and humble place.
I’ve alluded to the fact that Tom was not the best public speaker. He could sometimes stutter or fumble his words, as if he were searching through his vast book knowledge to pull out just the right modifier or qualifier. But the veil of hesitancy fell away when he spoke of his faith. He orated upon the subject of the love of God with a rising, staccato-like barrage of verbiage that resembled the thunderous “click-clack” of a Perkins braillewriter. Tom Anderson was an unashamed Christian. There was a reason why he was always asked to deliver the invocation at both state and national conventions. When his words turned heavenward, his timber would sharpen and his voice would rise and fall like the tide, sometimes bordering on tremulous passion for his holy savior.
Everyone who knew Tom Anderson knew where he stood with regard to questions of the power of the almighty Jesus Christ. Yet, I don’t ever remember Tom castigating anyone who did not share his view. He was not a fire-and-brimstone preacher man who hurled pronouncements of doom for those who did not accept the holy word. I remember him more as a stalwart messenger who spoke of his witness openly and unreservedly, but who did not cast stones at others. Tom was that rare kind of Christian that I respected. He always appeared to live the beliefs that he preached to others. I remember vowing that, if I ever got married, I would want Tom Anderson to officiate my wedding. How sad that this will never come to be.
I remember when I first met Tom in the summer of 2001. I was visiting the CCB for a three-day stay and met him in the braille room. I spoke to him of my belief that braille was paramount in the learning development of blind children. Naturally, he agreed. Then he asked me, “What would you say that you struggle the most with in your braille?”
My answer was automatic. “The slate and stylus.”
“Ok,” he responded. “So, I want you to slate me one page of contracted braille telling me about yourself.”
So, I wrote Tom one page of braille talking about myself. When I was done, I slapped down the stylus and said, “My right hand hasn’t been this sore since I watched The Spice Channel a few months ago.”
My companion who was with me at the time gasped, sure that I had offended Tom’s pious sensibilities. For his part, Tom threw back his head and laughed. It was a warm, infectious sound that drifted through the room like the smell of freshly baked bread. Tom was a strong Christian, but he was not a prude. He did not swear, but he did not police the language of others out of moral purity. Later that day, we all sang Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” with Tom singing the loudest while stomping on the floor as if he were leading a revival.
Tom and I kept in touch after he left Colorado. Through the power of WhatsApp, we spoke about the changing nature of politics, the changing culture of the NFB and of small things such as new-fangled iPhone apps, country music and books worthy of attention. When I moved to Omaha in October of 2017, Tom was a stable presence throughout my emotional turmoil. “Colorado is not the center of the universe,” he would tell me. “The Midwest really is a great place to live.” I took a measure of comfort knowing that Tom was just down the road in Overland Park.
Tom and I were closely aligned politically, which often made us feel like outriggers in an organization ubiquitous with professed liberals, many of whom were drifting toward progressivism. But Tom professed his political views in the same manner that he spoke of his faith. He was open and honest, but not a firebrand. He bemoaned the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican Party, but ultimately, he set upon the path I could never tread when he seemed to accept that Trump was a force that had to be dealt with reasonably, if not fully embraced.
In the past year or so, Tom and I drifted apart a little. I must confess that I pulled away just a bit. I drew back instinctively after January 6th. In discussing it with Tom, I was disconcerted to hear him describe the attack on our nation’s capital as, “civil disobedience.” Recent Facebook posts from him seemed to take a turn toward anti-vaccination, a position that is distasteful to me. In a world where so many people that I once loved and respected seem to have gone off the map, I didn’t feel I had the heart to fully reckon with the idea that calm, gentle, reasonable Tom Anderson may be losing his marbles. For me, a certain remove served as a measure of self-protection.
August has been a month bookended by death and loss. My uncle passed away at the beginning of the month after suffering a stroke on the 4th of July. We were not close, but I have fond memories of him from my childhood and I grieve for his remaining family. Two days ago, a close friend suffered the loss of her long-time partner. I didn’t know him, but watching her suffer the ravages of his death will be painful. But, of all the losses I’ve felt of late, the one that impacts me the most is that of Tom Anderson. When I heard of his passing last week, it was a bolt from the blue.
I was not prepared when I heard the news that he was gone. My first thought was one of anger, toward myself. I wish I had given Tom the same benefit of the doubt that he gave so many others when he taught all those years. If nothing else, Tom earned respect from me. If I was going to write him off as another Christian broken by Donald Trump, at least I should have given him a fair hearing before making my final judgment. Now, I will never know where he truly stood. I will never have the chance to thank him for all he did to inspire me during my time in Colorado. I will never be able to bid him a proper goodbye.
And yet, knowing Tom’s belief system as I did, I know that he is with God right now. I know he can see into my heart and can see my regret at not keeping in touch. I know that he is following the word of his lord and savior and that he has forgiven me. Someday, perhaps I’ll be worthy of that forgiveness.
As for Tom’s legacy, I will always remember him as a light that touched a great many people. Tom believed in the power of the written word and its ability to transform lives for the better. Whether he was reading Harry Potter, Lonesome Dove or The Bible in braille, he was always reading something. May that spirit continue to flourish amongst the blind of the world.
God bless you, Tosty Andersox, and thank you for all that you have given to us. We love you and miss you.
God’s speed, my friend.
PS: If you want to know while we all called Tom, “Tosty,” find someone who knew him and ask them. The best way to keep Tom alive is to speak of him.