TOMMIE—An Unforgettable Man
By Jim Rambo
We were both young, ambitious lawyers and were court appointed to represent a killer, a black, wiry man whose eyes were vacant and who never smiled. And he hadn’t been smiling the year before, 1983, when he senselessly murdered a priest, who had his collar on, in a wooded area near the courthouse. Tommie and I had our hands full and we quickly agreed that the state’s evidence indicated that our best outcome in the case would be to prevent the imposition of the death penalty. The killer would speak with Tommie but, because he had figured out that I didn’t like him at all, wouldn’t speak to me. I considered that his problem and not mine. It was his life on the line.
Several months following our appointment, we were proven correct in our assessment of the case when our client was unanimously found guilty of murder first degree with a hand gun and a penalty hearing was ordered. All of our mitigating evidence had been presented and I stood to address the jury in summation. Halfway through my argument, I noticed that one woman on the jury was crying. Soon a second and then a third joined in weeping. I tried not to show my excitement that my “save his life” argument seemed to be working. As I was focusing on my seeming success, however, I turned from the jury to share it with Tommie, who was seated at the defense table next to our client. To my amazement, Tommie had his head wrapped in both hands and was sobbing uncontrollably. He was evoking the jury’s response; not me!
And that was my friend, Tommie; always in control. He had been a good Catholic boy out of Philadelphia, the author of two books, a high school teacher, a Marine, the first judo instructor at Paris Island, Chairman of the Young Republicans, a legislator in Delaware, a drill instructor, and a World Teacher in Namibia.
In other words, he was a self- confident tough guy without the bravado. When a Mafioso figure in Philly got in trouble in Delaware, they called on Tommie. He spoke their language and, like so many others, they knew they could trust him. He confided in me years later that he only overplayed his hand with Frank Sheeran, the Philly gangster, when he asked what had really happened to Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran immediately barked at Tommie to never again bring up the subject... and Tommie wisely never did!
He told me that while in Namibia, teaching, he had a near death experience. A form of malaria had reached his brain and he was unconscious for a long while. He vividly described his experience “on the other side” and how he had finally chosen to return. There was unfinished work, as he explained it, and after regaining consciousness, he never had any fear of death, often musing about the elation and wonder of meeting long gone relatives and friends while in his fever.
In 2016, at the age of 80, Tommie was still working for the Public Defender’s Office in Dover, Delaware. He still enjoyed the challenge during his days. At night he would teach judo to troubled teens and anyone else interested. I sent him money to buy new judo mats after learning that he was still teaching. The sessions left him exhausted but never financially better off for he never charged anyone for the lessons: Vintage Tommie. We kept in contact via Facebook where we would frequently disagree. One thing that we did agree on was that automatic weapons and too many handguns were contributing to the ruination of the fabric of America. I even bought stock in several weapons producers in anticipation of Tommie and I filing a class action stockholder suit against manufacturers. It was not to be.
Last Christmas morning I awoke and, coffee in hand and still half asleep, went to Facebook. Thumbing through, I found a post from Tommie. It began with a single, riveting word....”sayonara.” Tommie went on to assure his friends that he had enjoyed a full and complete life. He expressed particular pride that his grandson had declared him “one badass grandfather” after Tommie had coached the grandson’s high school wrestling team one day.
Many of Tommie’s Facebook friends were students whom he had taught fifty years before. In caps on his final post Tommie made it clear that he had left us with a BANG and a SMILE. He had done it, incredibly, with a handgun. His body was found on the third floor of a residence he had helped found called Victory Village. It was a shelter for homeless veterans. For days on end, after reading his post, I wandered about, shocked and mystified that my proud, strong, energetic friend had taken his own life. His daughter, Annie, had confirmed her father’s death on Tommie’s Facebook page a day after his Christmas post.
I could not travel to Delaware to attend the funeral but just last week Annie called me in Mexico. She explained that her dad had confided his plan two months earlier. Answering my question, she explained that the Catholic Church had assisted her funeral planning in spite of her father taking his own life. “The times they are a changin.’” She also explained that the hated hand gun was used to make certain it would be over. I felt great pride when she related how many times Tommie had told her that “Rambo bought the judo mats for those kids”. No one knew that, together, we had also helped others who had wandered into his shelter, sometimes with their children in tow.
Finally, Annie and I laughed together over Tommie’s arranging for his funeral at a funeral home owned by a black family. It catered nearly exclusively to black families. Annie said, “Dad told me that everything would be taken care of but when I saw the $1,200 bill for his cremation, I was surprised and unable to pay it.” So she asked the funeral director’s son why there was a bill when her father had represented the Congo Funeral Home for many, many years, charging only $1.00 once as a joke. The son then excused himself, later returning to explain, “There will only be a small fee because of all that your father has done for us. My dad, Sammy Congo, asks that you bake us two apple pies. Forget about the $1,200!” Annie was again impressed that the “love of my life,” as she described her dad, had yet again been right. Everything had been taken care of.
Ironically, I know now that every time I hear the Marine Corps hymn, which was played at the funeral, I will think of a Japanese word ….sayonara. And a tear will flow for my forever friend, Tommie Little.