A local man’s story of embracing forgiveness and living life to the fullest
If there is any takeaway from the life Lee Thomas White has lived, it is to live to the fullest, without anger, and without fear of getting old. He turned 92 last month; being born on Thanksgiving Day in 1927 earned him the name Tom because his mother says she got him instead of a turkey. Tom’s soul has a lightness and his personality a playfulness of someone more in the prime of life. But that’s what’s endearing about this kind man with bright blue eyes. He is living his best life at his age, while wearing his best clothes, in Fauquier Nursing and Rehabilitation with his best friends, and with stepdaughter Sharon Wiggins as his best advocate.
During the 45-year marriage to Sharon’s mother, Tom treated his wife with kindness and respect. Sharon says, “He was quiet, never drank, never smoked, and nothing got under his skin.” After her mom passed away, Sharon would meet with Tom for occasional dinners and chats on the phone on holidays and birthdays. But then, for four years, they lost touch. In November of 2017, when Sharon tried to arrange a visit with him, she couldn’t find him at his last residence.
From there, the rescue mission began. Sharon found Tom at a hospital in Charlottesville where he had been for a month and a half. He was malnourished, missing his teeth, and suffering from a severe skin infection… alone and hopeless. His shoes had holes in them and he had nothing but the clothes on his body. The hospital had no one to take responsibility for him and would be releasing him to a homeless shelter as there was not a medical reason for his continued stay.
Sharon took action immediately: she went shopping for new pajamas, socks, slippers, and necessities and brought him food that he asked for. When she visited him every weekend, she told him he had to get stronger so that she could bring him to her home. His body was so weak, he had difficulty getting from his chair to the bed. He began using the floor pedal machine Sharon brought him and gained more and more strength until he could walk unassisted.
Sharon thought about the fond memories she had of how Tom had treated her mother, so she knew she couldn’t let anything happen to him. He was kind and loving and did not harbor any anger towards the people who caused him to be in this dire situation. Sharon accepted responsibility for Tom, took him to get identification, Medicare, his social security card, and started helping his reclaim his life in her care.
With the proper nutrition and medication, Tom’s health, both mental and physical, began to improve. After he fell ill with another infection, Sharon thought she would lose him. The hospital did all they could but sent him to a nursing home with not much hope. But he got stronger again and then came back to live with her.
Although living with Sharon made Tom happy, he is a very social person and loves to talk and socialize. Since Sharon works full-time, he was alone most of the day. Tom also likes to be active, needs to be reminded to take his medicine, and had to wear an alarm so he wouldn’t walk away from the house and get lost. Sharon says she had no idea what to so she prayed and prayed for the right solution. She asked God to help her keep Tom close and safe.
The solution came along “by the grace and hand of God and a little help from friends,” says Sharon. For the last year and a half, Tom has resided very happily at Fauquier Nursing and Rehabilitation on Hospital Hill in Warrenton. He has many friends, especially the ladies, and the nurses adore him. It’s easy to see why.
Being the only able-bodied resident at a nursing home has put Tom in a unique position that perfectly fits his giving soul. He helps all the other residents, pushing them in their wheelchairs or helping put bibs on them at dinner time. He assists one resident by filling her humidifier with water and finds other ways to contribute.
A first impression of Tom would begin with his attire. Each and every day, he dresses himself up. In his room is an assortment of ties, suspenders, dress pants, button down shirts, suits, and sport coats. When asked why he does this, Tom says, “because it makes me feel different… it makes me feel better.”
What someone might not realize immediately is how smart Tom is. The activity staff at Fauquier Nursing and Rehab had to ask Tom to count to the number 11 before answering a question at trivia to give the other residents a chance to get one right. He is too smart for his own good, they say. A genius, he says.
Tom loves to be occupied. He wears a post office hat Sharon bought him to deliver all the mail for the nursing home. The hat makes him feel more official and lets the residents know why this dressed up man is bringing them things.
Tom’s sense of humor is alive and well. He is always making people laugh and cracking jokes. But he is a real gentleman. If you visit him, he will insist on walking you out. He will jump up to open the door for anyone.
His forgiving soul is evident in the way he talks about his past. Although he will tell you he was “granny dumped,” there is still a smile on his face. He didn’t even want the people who abandoned him to be punished.
When asked where he would be without Sharon, Tom says he would probably be in a homeless shelter or worse. “I just love her to death; she rescued me from hell,” he says. Ever so grateful for the little things, he deeply appreciates the three hot meals a day and a warm bed to sleep in at Fauquier Nursing and Rehab. “Everyone is so, so good to me,” he says.
When he is told of the impact his story has on those who meet him, he seems almost surprised. He is as humble as they come. An event he really enjoyed was dressing up as Santa at Mountain Ridge Church, although he is still puzzled parents trust an old man dressed in a Santa suit to hold their babies. Tom made such a great Santa that Sharon submitted a photo of Tom drinking a coke as Santa to McClanahan Camera’s photo contest last year and he won!
Tom is going to be an Honorary Judge at the Warrenton Car Show for the second year in a row. His face lights up when he talks about the Corvettes he will be judging, and tells a story about the first Corvette he bought for $6,900 back in the day.
One more lesson readers can take from this story is how to treat those we love. There are stories after stories of ways Sharon has helped Tom to regain some of his self-esteem. He can’t drive a car, so she bought him a lawn mower, then made a video of him riding it and posted it online to the tune of the Willie Nelson song On the Road Again. She had the Warrenton Barbershop Quartet come to the nursing home to sing happy birthday to him when he turned 91. She rented a limo to take him to see Christmas lights one year. There are too many kind gestures to include here.
He has gained quite a following on social media since his rescue in 2017. The community has rallied around him, and Sharon’s friends are quick to help out also. One paid for Tom’s dentures. Others take him for outings, bring him gifts, and help celebrate important milestones.
“He has a reason to live now: he has his identity and self-esteem back, he is well-nourished and feels safe in the nursing home, and everyone who meets him loves him,” says Sharon. There are so many years of life before Sharon and Tom crossed paths. Tom was a pilot, model, body builder, restaurant owner, and so much more. His stories go on and on about his adventures in his earlier years. But it seems that his golden years will be spent with those who mean the most and those who love him best.
While she’s always been a caring person, her experiences with Tom have taught Sharon to be even more compassionate and forgiving. Tom fits right in with her life but adds a loving family relationship to it. “He is grateful and a very good man. I am sure my mom is looking down on us and finally smiling,” she says.