When Tom Minns died at Ohio Valley General Hospital on September 13, 1951, his little family in Center Wheeling was devastated. His death was not sudden, but that didn’t mean they were prepared.
For nearly a year, the 66-year-old blind businessman winced and gritted his teeth as he fought off the pain of his kidney disease, but he kept up his work and routine at an increasingly slower pace until he was unable to carry on any longer. He had followed the doctor’s advice by altering his diet and taking several hot baths a day to relieve the pressure on his malfunctioning kidneys, and he had been religiously taking his prescribed medicines. But finally, his anxious family drove him to the hospital the day before he died to help him get relief.
His wife Lizzie, with whom he had shared a life of blindness, challenge, happiness, and finally, comfort; daughter Mabel; son-in-law George and even four-year-old grandson Terry had spent most of Tom’s last day huddled around his hospital bed. Weakened and in great pain, Tom still maintained his humor and affection for his family. Little Terry sat in the bed beside his grandfather and held the old man’s hand tightly. George and Mabel leaned against a wall in the sanitized hospital room, and Lizzie sat on Tom’s bed holding his other hand.
“It’s getting late people,” Tom said weakly. “Take this boy home and get him his dinner. His stomach growls are keeping me awake. You all have spent way too much time here today already. We can catch up tomorrow.”
They reluctantly agreed to leave. Mabel kissed his feverish bald head and stroked his stubbly unshaven cheek. She whispered “I love you” and squeezed his arm. Terry began to cry as his mother lifted him from his comfortable slot cuddled against his grandfather’s side, and Tom reached up to find his cheek with his hand and give the boy a pat. George took Tom’s left hand in his own and patted the little Irishman on the shoulder.
“See you tomorrow after work, Pap,” he said.
Lizzie was last to say goodnight after Mabel, George, and Terry left the room. She reached out to find his face and leaned forward to give him a departing kiss. Instead, she found a big glass of water that was perched precariously on the edge of his bedside table and it toppled over into Tom’s bed.
“Good Lord, woman, are ya tryin to drown me?” Tom chuckled weakly. “Actually, it kind of feels good right now. It’s been so darn hot in here today.”
Lizzie was mortified and began to call out for Mabel to return to help with the cleanup.
“Never mind,” Tom said. “The nurses will be here any moment to annoy me with something and they can help then. You get home and get some rest.”
This time, Lizzie found Tom’s face and kissed his lips gently. She couldn’t shed tears from the empty socket where her right eye had once been but the permanently closed left eye produced big droplets that fell on Tom’s cheek as she held him close.
“More water, Lizzie?” Tom joked. “Haven’t you made my bed wet enough already?”
They hugged quietly for a few moments more.
“Thank you, Lizzie, for all you have done for me,” Tom said in a tone so soft that Lizzie could barely hear. He held her hand in both of his and continued.
“It hasn’t been an easy life, but I’ll be darned if we haven’t given it a grand go. We are blessed with a good home and a gem of a daughter who brought us a wonderful son-in-law and now an even greater gift in that ornery little boy. We had a few twists and turns to get here, but it’s all been worth it. You are the light in my darkened world, Lizzie, and it has been your talent, grace, conscience, and even your stubbornness that made our life so rewarding. Hurry home now. Get some rest and come back to me tomorrow.”
The family drove back to their little Wood Street house in the big old Hudson. They didn’t speak much, and little Terry had nodded off to sleep in the back seat cuddled up against his grandma. George dropped the women and the boy off out front and drove the Hudson to the garage they rented from a neighbor about a block away.
The telephone was ringing as Mabel unlocked the door and the trio walked inside. She ran to the kitchen table to answer it. It was the family physician, Dr. Earl Phillips. He asked to speak to Lizzie. Mabel’s hand was shaking as she placed the receiver in her mother’s hand and guided her to a chair next to the table.
“I’m very sorry, Lizzie,” Dr. Earl said. “Tom passed away just a moment ago. I was with him and he was comfortable and not in any pain.”
Lizzie thanked him, rose from her chair and walked quickly to her bedroom, where she threw herself down on the big four-poster bed and wept for hours.
In the weeks that followed Tom’s services at St. Joseph’s Cathedral and burial in Greenwood Cemetery, the little family succeeded in dealing with their loss and grief. Lizzie decided to keep Tom’s little telemarketing business going and she assumed his role of calling Wheeling residents neighborhood by neighborhood to sell brooms, mops, her handmade tea towels and lace, and a growing number of other products made by blind people in a big noisy factory in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.
George continued his mail route in Elm Grove and had his eye on a neat little house on Columbia Avenue that he thought would make a wonderful new home. The family was ready to move on from its origins on the city streets of South and Center Wheeling and begin a new chapter in the suburbs. They missed the wit and wisdom of Tom every day, but he continued on in their memory just the way they knew he would.
Tom led a wonderful life of hard work, ingenuity, persistence in the face of challenge, and dedication to his family, city, and friends. He loved his city and its people and never failed to tell all that it was the best place to live that he could possibly imagine.
He would have been ambivalent about the Wheeling of the 21st century. He would have been bursting with pride over the success of the men and women’s sport teams of both West Liberty and Wheeling Jesuit and been delighted that a professional hockey team plays hard every season in the city’s own impressive arena. He would have celebrated the rebirth of the riverfront and the return of so many varieties of music to the streets and venues of his city. He would have been particularly proud of the annual Celtic Festival downtown. He would have welcomed the innovative use of old landmark structures for businesses and new housing.
But, he would have lamented the loss of so many proud old buildings, scratched his head over the loss of whole industries and the jobs that went with them, and been perplexed over the cruel radical right turn of his state’s legislature.
Tom Minns, however, would still be comfortable with the people he would encounter on today’s streets of Wheeling. He would recognize their pride in their city, their generosity and empathy for the less fortunate, their optimism over new developments, and their hopes and dreams for an even better home and more productive future.