By LANCE CRANMER email@example.com
Sometimes he drew landscapes. Other times he sketched World War II fighter planes, paying close attention to the little details – the angle of a wing, the height of a tail. On occasion, he was asked to draw nothing more than bright, cheerful flowers.
An artist at heart – a skill he once had to hide from a disapproving father – Tom David used his talents with pencils and paint brushes to work with seriously ill patient at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, as part of an art therapy program.
“I started doing that as part of my volunteering,” Tom said, who on May 20 will be recognized for his lifetime of work when he is inducted into the Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame at the Ohio Statehouse. “There was one man who was a World War II pilot. I started drawing airplanes for him. He would describe a plane, and I would draw it. Then he would tell me little things that should be different. Once you suck someone in like that, they’re hooked. They’re hooked for hours.”
A retiree from a wildly successful career as an industrial designer, Tom volunteered his time at the hospital to help those who needed even a moment of time to think about something other than their illness to have an escape.
Many of them were never aware that Tom himself was fighting for his life.
“In the early 90s I was diagnosed with prostate cancer,” he said. “I’m still battling it.”
Tom used his knowledge of the fight against cancer to help others with the same challenges.
“I started doing it on the cancer floor, because I had cancer, and you understand,” he said. “In time, you really understand.”
On one particular day, Tom visited a young mother and her family. Weak because of her struggle with breast cancer, the young woman wanted Tom to help her paint something for her children.
“We worked and worked and she finally got tired,” Tom said. “I never will forget those kids dancing around the room, excited about the flowers they were drawing.”
When the painting was done, Tom told the nurses what they had worked on, said goodbye for the night, and headed home.
Tom returned the next day to see how the woman was doing.
“She had died that morning,” he said, drifting off into silence.
HALL OF FAME NOMINEE
To know Tom David – or even to sit with him in his assisted living apartment and talk about life, and art, and his uncanny ability to love total strangers – is a remarkable experience.
Born the son of a farmer in rural Virginia, Tom designed countless innovative products, traveled the globe, and found a way to improve hundreds of lives through his volunteering.
“When I heard about the (Hall of Fame) nominations I thought, ‘I have the perfect person’,” said Tammy Justice, the Life Enrichment Director at Lincoln Village, the National Church Residences’ Columbus facility where Tom lived for three years before recently moving to live closer to his doctor’s offices. “I always thought he was pretty incredible. I didn’t even know how incredible.”
Tammy knew Tom as a selfless, devoted volunteer and the epitome of a hard worker.
“I didn’t even know all the things he’d done,” she said. “I just knew that he’d always worked his tail off for me.”
Tammy and Tom spent hours talking about the things he’d done in his life. And when they were done, Tammy nominated her friend for the Hall of Fame on behalf of National Church Residences.
“Tammy made it happen. She wrote up this entry form. She did an incredible job. The first time I read it, I thought, ‘Oh my God,’” Tom said. “I feel so honored. I’m humbled. I never tell anybody about myself. I grew up never wanting anybody to think I’m hot stuff.”
When the application was complete – and led to Tom’s eventual selection as a future Hall of Fame member – the pair met to talk about what she’d written.
“We cried together,” Tammy said.
THE YOUNG ARTIST
Telling the story of Tom David is no easy task. Tom himself even struggles to find the most poignant parts. So, like any great storyteller, Tom starts from the beginning.
“I was always drawing pictures as a little kid. One Christmas my mother bought me a paint set,” Tom said. “My father threw it away.”
Though it became more of a hobby that he had to do in secret – at the time, Tom’s school district did not teach art – Tom continued to draw and paint.
“Eventually, a girlfriend’s mother when I was in high school got me a paint set,” he said. “She was a painter. I had to hide it in my house.”
A standout athlete as well, Tom earned a football scholarship to play for Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and, at the suggestion of his father, began to study engineering.
Soon after, an uncle, who had been a fan of Tom’s artwork, suggested he transfer to the University of Cincinnati (where he lived) and major in industrial design.
“He told me, you can come here and live with me. I think you’ll be a good industrial designer,” Tom said, noting that he later taught a sophomore-level course in the field at The Ohio State University. “I loved it. It was right up my alley.”
The change was an instant success.
While in Cincinnati, Tom met his future wife, and landed his first job as an industrial designer with RCA in Indianapolis.
“It was rare at the time to be an industrial designer with an engineering background,” he said.
The mixture made Tom a sought-after commodity. That led to a career breakthrough and his eventual move to Columbus.
“I came to Columbus and joined a small design group called Richardson and Smith in the early 60s,” he said.
Over the next several decades, Tom designed medical equipment, hand tools, trucks, boats … “It just went on and on and on,” he said.
While working with GE years later, Tom’s designs helped in the invention of the CAT scan machine.
Among his most cherished professional accomplishments came in 1973 he won the Design in Steel “Excellence in Design of Transportation Equipment” award for the Nimrod Tent Camper – a pop-up style camper that became a must-have for the American family.
“I loved what I did,” Tom said, adding that he made a point of using all of his designs in his personal life. “Everything I did I had to live with. If you really want something done right, do it yourself.”
Tom’s work pioneering the concept of “Design for Disassembly” landed him an interview in the January 1991 issue of Popular Science.
Before long, Tom said the small Columbus design firm he initially went to work for expanded into a company with offices around the globe.
“We wound up with offices in London, Taiwan, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas,” he said. “I was everywhere. It’s unbelievable.”
RETIREMENT AND VOLUNTEERING
After his two sons – Scott David, today the Head of U.S. Investment Services at T. Rowe Price and Associates in Baltimore, and Doug David, a Global Technology Infrastructure Associate with Chase Bank – were grown, Tom and his wife amicably split. However, they remain close and she continues to take him to doctor’s appointments.
Upon his retirement, Tom began to seek out volunteering opportunities.
“What makes me happy is to make other people happy,” he said. “I’ve always loved people. I don’t know why. I dig them. I love talking to people.”
Three times a week he volunteered at Riverside walking the halls and visiting patients with a coffee and cake cart.
“People loved us,” he said. “We hit every floor. It took us part of the morning and all afternoon, just walking the hospital.”
That later transitioned into his role doing art therapy.
Today, at 73-years old, the grandfather of five – still weak from his cancer treatments – remains an avid painter. BalletMet, the Columbus-based professional dance academy, commissioned Tom to create artwork for its building.
“I did a ton of ‘em,” he joked.
A handful of works in progress are scattered around his home, including a re-creation of a photograph his son took in Venice, a landscape view from a hotel Tom once stayed at in Colorado, and a portrait of his youngest granddaughter Chloe, complete with angel wings.
“I don’t know,” he said as to what inspires him to continue painting.
Tom continues to stay active, even joking with Tammy about getting a basket of candy and paying door-to-door visits to the people on his floor, but admits he no longer has the energy he once did.
Still, though, his desire to make others happy shines through.
“I paid my dues. I worked hard. I gave back,” he said. “Giving brings me lots of joy. I don’t give on purpose. It’s a normal part of me.”