Tom Landis died suddenly 13 years ago today. This is the eulogy I read at his funeral a month later. A few months before I’d seen Tom Landis at a funeral, never thinking that some weeks hence I’d be speaking at his.
“Everyone has a story to tell.” That was Tom’s Facebook page motto. This is how Tom approached life and the way Tom welcomed the people he knew – by listening to their stories. This is mine.
Tom had an ability to communicate with most every one. He was as comfortable discussing medieval philosophy as he was pounding nails. Tom approached each person as a unique individual deserving of his attention and interest. He interacted as well with a child, a teenager, a woman or a fellow worker. When Landis spoke, OFTEN LOUDLY, people listened. I was one of them.
Tom had one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever known. In every encounter I learned something: an author, a book, a quote, philosophical insight; more often an approach to life through building or construction; less frequently, but most valuably, an insight into my own shortcomings.
I first met Tom in the early 1980s. My initial impression was of a bookish intellectual of penetrating eyes with a quick-witted tongue. The better I learned to know Tom, the more I grew to like him.
Now, I have no intention of painting a false picture of Tom. He could be loud, crude or boorish. I don’t believe ‘alcohol’ was his friend. Tom was no saint, but in his heart he was no sinner.
Tom often spoke through a world of ideas. He was fond of saying that, “small minds talk about people, average minds speak of events, but great minds discuss ideas.” Tom had this amazing ability to take a complex situation and make it simple. He also had the frustrating tendency to take the simple and make it complex. He was at home in words, in poetry, and the appreciation of beauty.
Tom was a religious spirit who sought transcendence in the mundane. He enjoyed the humdrum of everyday living. He was at ease in the philosophy of Buddha as he was by quoting Jesus or the Bible. He believed ‘the journey’ to be more important then ‘the destination’ and that more could be learned through ‘doing’ than from an analysis of how things are done.
Tom loved the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. He would often end a conversation or an e-mail with a quote from the movie. If you moved into a new home, Tom would bring you bread, salt, and wine. “Bread… that this house may never know hunger. Salt… that life may always have flavor. And wine… that joy and prosperity may reign forever.” Tom might even bring you a copy of the novel Tom Sawyer. “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”
Do this in remembrance of Tom, go home and watch It’s a Wonderful Life in its entirety.
I remember one particular Labor Day weekend at Shangri-La where amidst the revelry Tom used the scenes at hand to explain the 14th century allegorical poem, Divine Comedy by Dante. I usually came away from a conversation with Tom impressed by his command of culture and man’s place in the cosmos. I think of Tom as I quote Dante, “Speaking he said many things, among which I could understand but a few.”
Tom’s experiences at Drake University shaped his world view. A few years back I sent Tom a commentary on the 1960s in general and the year 1968 in particular. In response, he told of his days meeting the likes of Abbie Hoffman, Mark Rudd, and Eldridge Cleaver in the Christian coffeehouse he ran at Drake. Speaking of that ministry, the mayhem, and the madness, Tom wrote:
“In 1968, I was 20. I wrote poetry, rode a bike, and had small, simple thoughts. I kept myself sequestered among a small group of friend who were Christian centrists. We read, went to the movies, listened well, broke bread together. We argued about things we knew nothing about, such as Heidegger and Nietzsche, but ultimately garnered respect for the simplicity of C.S. Lewis and how he reframed the Christian dialogue . . . During the summer of 1970, I began my carpentry apprenticeship. I guess this was my attempt at cultivating my own garden. Four years later, I joined the Seabees. By then, my garden had gotten bigger although I still enjoyed reading C.S. Lewis.”
Tom recently wrote an auto-biographical novel. It’s the story of a man who dies suddenly in late middle-age. He writes, “When a death happens unexpectedly in a family, you see a person’s life through what’s left on the bedroom dresser: a wallet, a wedding ring, a watch, loose change, Tums, golf tees, a half-empty book of matches. This usually means that the person wasn’t expecting to die suddenly.”
Tom died unexpectedly in late middle-age on Dec. 15, 2009.
Tom wrote much about life on Diego Garcia, a British-American island outpost in the Indian Ocean, where enduring friendships with his Seabee buddies were made. They called it ‘The Rock’ and Tom described the experience “as a cross between Gilligan’s Island and Alcatraz.”
As some may know, Tom wrote his own obituary. In 2007, I received a long email – nothing unusual about that, Tom was the master of long emails. The subject matter caught my eye. In my emotions I was somewhere between amused and bewildered, but knew better than to ask “What’s this all about?”
Instead, I sent some editorial corrections and suggestions for improvement. About three weeks later the finished version arrived. I said nothing, but printed it out and put it away in a safe place. His self-penned eulogy wasn’t the morbid act of some mischievous person, for Tom wrote in the present tense and titled it “My Living Funeral” – with an obvious emphasis on the word ‘Living.’ Tom planned to run the race set out before him.
In many ways Tom was a contradiction. He was a philosopher in mind, but a carpenter in hand. He could be ‘fire’ and just as easily a ‘rose.’ Tom was a writer of two volumes of published verse. Tom enjoyed poetry, so I finish with lines from a poem by T.S. Eliot that he would enjoy.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Labor Day Coda:
The late Tom Landis was famously loud. The more he drank the louder he got—especially on Labor Day weekend at Shangri-La. There he sat above the volley ball court as the appeals referee, referred to as ‘Buddha’ by those below. There Tom bellowed the phrase, “You’re all idiots!” for which he will always be remembered.
In his loving memory, a bright red, neon sign now hangs each Labor Day weekend at Shangri-La, a place he loved and where everyone loved Tom. I stood below on the Friday before Labor Day in recognition that Tom was wise and yes, we all are idiots. We just don’t know the next time we’ll prove him right.