Thursday, June 15, 2023

The Boy from Shopton

 Wendall -- every other Thursday

Until four years ago, Father’s Day was one of my favorite days of the year. My late dad, Grady Thomas, never really liked a fuss, but on Father’s Day, as far as I was concerned, he just had to put up with it. 


My dad, the audiologist, monitoring me, which he never did in life.

I didn’t get to spend as many of those holidays with him as I wish I had, but I’ll always be grateful I was able to take him out to lunch on Father’s Day the year before he passed away, when these pictures were taken. 


Father's Day lunch

Now, the day is bittersweet. I miss his advice, I miss his wit, I miss the smell of Sir Walter Raleigh pipe smoke curling through every room in the house. 


This is the look I got when I mentioned one of my hare-brained schemes.

My Dad was a natural athlete and a great singer. He was even part of a traveling quartet called the “Gospeleers.” He loved liver and onions. And thunderstorms. 


High school football. But baseball was really his game.

One of my most vivid memories is sitting on his lap on our screened in porch and hearing the suck of his pipe between claps of thunder. He was never without his pipe, even in his last days, where he snuck out of his medical facility so he could smoke in the parking lot with my brother and sister.


Dad with pipe, 1960s

Dad with pipe, 2019

I keep one of those pipes on my desk and wear the silver bracelets engraved with Lost Luggage and Drowned Under he and my step-mother gave me when I published my first two books. 


You'll never find me at a reading without these

In many ways, I take after him. I have his squinty eyes, his passion for music, movies, and driving, his need for regular bouts of solitude, and a penchant for “pantsing,” in work and in life.


Off to rent Sargent York or Patton, AGAIN

One of the last conversations I ever had with him was about fate and opportunity. He grew up the youngest of six on a farm outside Charlotte, N.C., with no running water or electricity, but complete with an outhouse (as a child, he was famous for locking neighbors in and making them sing to get out...). He told me that the whole trajectory of his life, which he thought he would spend as a minor league baseball player or a mechanic, came down to his willingness to veer off course and say yes to random opportunities. 


This is a kid who would lock someone in an outhouse

I loved how he—the scientist that he was—saw the patterns of the last eighty years which had led him from that outhouse not only to the first college degree in his family, but to a PhD.


As kids, we don’t always know about our parents’ accomplishments. And Dad was never one to brag about what he was doing. I don’t think I appreciated the full picture until I was well into my forties. Among other things, he was the first clinical audiologist in the state of North Carolina and became the Head of the Speech and Hearing Department at the UNC Medical Center. He was Chairman of the Medical Advisory Council for OSHA, and his expertise on  the vestibular system led to frequent work with NASA investigating causes of space sickness. He worked in diving medicine as well, and is listed in Who’s Who in American Science.


I did know, however, that he was a generous, hilarious, tolerant, and kind man, and that’s what I remember, more than any accolades.  



Always cracking me up

He was great at the “Dad” stuff. He sat by my bed when I was sick, taught me to ride a bike and to drive, bought me my first transistor radio and my first album—The Monkees’ Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones, Ltd. But more than that, he always encouraged me to be independent and to do what I loved. When I decided I wanted to play the guitar, he got me my first inexpensive one, then told me he’d pay for half of the serious, Guild G-37 I really wanted, if I worked for the rest. After I did three hundred hours of babysitting (!), he kept that promise. 


Only a great dad would involve himself in this nonsense

And when I got my first paying gig at 15, at a pizza joint that served beer, my mother said I was going to hell. Dad came and ran the soundboard. He was like that for my whole life, no matter what I got up to.


Before he died, I’d encouraged him to write down at least some of his experiences growing up and, although it is unfinished, the few pages of his memoir, The Boy from Shopton, are precious to me and say a lot about him, and a lot about my grandparents as well. There were a few things I didn’t know, like this.


For a while, his nickname was "Flash"

“In order to get the job at the A&P, I had to have a Social Security Card. I went to the Records Dept. in Charlotte to get a copy of my birth certificate, but they could not find it. They had a Richard Grady Thomas with the correct parents and birthday, but no William Grady Thomas. As I have indicated earlier, I was born at home. My mother gave our family doctor, Dr. Richard Querry, the name she wanted on the birth certificate. Dr. Querry told my mother that he was going to name this boy after himself. Of course, mother thought he was kidding, but for the first twelve years of my life I was Richard Grady Thomas. It was terribly expensive to have my birth certificate changed, a whopping 50 cents.”


And this story says so much:


“In March of my sophomore year in high school I turned 16 years of age. My brother-in-law, Hudie Moser, took me to the Driver's License Bureau and I got my driver's license on my birthday. That evening I took the family car out to visit some friends. Neither my mother nor my father asked where I was going or when I would be back. I knew to stay out of trouble and when to return home. As indicated previously, my mother and father tended to teach by example instead of threats.”


Last time I saw my Dad, still cracking me up

My Dad was the same. He trusted us to follow his example, and that has made all the difference. Families are complicated and these kinds of holidays can bring up feelings we might not welcome or that we stuff down most of the year. Thankfully for me, I’m happy to remember Grady anytime. 




  1. What a wonderful piece about your father, Wendall. He sounds like an amazing man, and an even more amazing father.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Wendall. In a small way, we can all know and appreciate your dad.

  3. Thank you, Wendall, a beautifully rendered memory, familiar, specific and heartfelt.

  4. Thanks so much, Zoë, Michael, and James. Yes, in my opinion, he was the bomb and I'm glad that came across. I hope he'd be pleased. Thanks for commenting, all of you!

  5. Generosity of spirit, guidance, and love - what a legacy, Wendall - all embodied in you.

  6. Thank you, PJ! Very kind of you to say.

  7. What a lovely tribute to your dad. He sounds like he was a wonderful father.

    1. Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for reading and for your kind words.

  8. Lovely article and memories. And many, many excellent notes on living life well

    1. Thank you so much for reading and the kind words.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. This is such a beautiful piece, Wendall. Your dad sounds like a remarkable man and father--and you sound like you take after him in pursuing your passions wisely & well!

  11. That's very kind of you, Ovidia. I only wish I had half of his sense! Thank you, as ever, for posting.

  12. What a beautiful tribute, Wendall! I was a daddy's girl too. Like you,I delight any time see anything of my dad in myself. And you could not be more right. As far as I can tell, the human family is the most complicated organism on earth. But I look at it this way: ALL those experiences made us who we are today. And since there is no one else we can be, we might as well try to enjoy being our best selves!

    1. Thank you so much! I was actually inspired to write it by your wonderful piece about your father, so I obviously felt a kinship with that article and with you on this vital issue. xx