Ready to dig in for gardening season, Thomas Toliver visits the first of three community gardens he established on the West Side. He makes the boxes for the raised beds himself. "It's a far cry from the horse and plow I started with as a boy," he said.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He's a charismatic do-gooder, eternally cheerful, caring, philosophical and full of one-liners that make people smile.
Many awards -- including the national Jefferson Award bestowed in Washington, D.C. -- recognize the uplifting people-oriented pursuits that drive Tom Toliver.
He mentors prison inmates and their children and goes bowling with mentally challenged people every Wednesday. Nothing fills him with more joy than the community gardens program he started on the West Side. The civic service resume includes a lifetime of church work.
He grew up in South Hills, son of a chauffeur and maid. As a boy, he plowed gardens with a horse, delivered papers, chopped wood, mowed grass, anything to meet the demanding work ethic instilled by his father.
He earned his living as a welder, plant expeditor and custodian.
At 80, he remains devoted to his multifaceted people-ministry. He operates from an office at the West Virginia State Economic Development Center.
"Every job I go to, ...
... people think I'm smart ...
... because I run my mouth."
In 1951, Tom Toliver graduated from Garnet High School.
A vintage photo recalls Tom Toliver's horse and plow days in South Hills. Eventually, he plowed enough gardens to buy a Gravely tractor.
Representing the Gideons, Tom Toliver made a two-week trip to Kenya to distribute Bibles in 2000. A lifelong church worker, he drove the bus for the Bible Center Church and helped establish the Grace Bible Church on Kanawha Boulevard West. Board involvements include the Union Mission and Spring Hill Cemetery.
"I grew up on Newton Road in South Hills. My father knew only two words: God and work. He was a chauffeur for the Newton Thomas family. My mother was their maid. We lived in an apartment above the garage. It's still there.
"I started working by hoeing a garden. It was a progression. I started working with a horse, plowing all over South Hills. They paid me good. I passed newspapers. If I saw a place where a garden was or could be, I would tell those people I would plow for them. And word got around.
"Later on, I got a Gravely tractor with money I earned from plowing. Gravely tractors were made in Dunbar. The tractor made it a smooth operation. Once you plowed, the garden was ready to sow. Even today, I show kids how to plow with a Gravely tractor.
"On South Hills, there was a little black elementary school on Oakmont Road. We played with the white kids, but we couldn't go to school with them. We use to walk by Fernbank School all the way to the black school, but my daddy never made a big issue about that kind of thing. That's just what was going on then. I have white friends coming back to me today to apologize because they weren't aware that I could not go in a drug store there and sit down and drink a soda.
"We had to wait for the whites to get on the bus, then we could get on. But you'd never hear our family getting involved in racial issues.
"My daddy was so heavenly-minded that earthly things didn't matter. He just thought it was foolishness. He said you got things to do, so you don't have time to get involved in all this. So we never made an issue of it. The way things are going for me now, I don't have any regrets.
"I went to another black school, Boyd Elementary, on Shrewsbury Street, and finished at Garnet High in 1951.
"I like to tease Danny Jones and dare him to get out of hand. His grandmother was a Pritchard, and they had a car dealership, and she was good to me because she knew of my character and how I worked hard. If it was raining and I was walking off the hill, she would pick me up and take me on down.
"There was Miss Dick's school on Lookout Road. They wanted to take me in, but I worked so hard I never could attend.
"I've seen big changes in Charleston. Are you familiar with Bedford Road? It was a desolate area. It had two knolls and across them was a long cable, and on that cable was a duffle bag of mail. A plane would come by and drop the mail and scoop the other mail up in the cabin. And that's how airmail got here before the airport.
"I used to work over there in that field for the Battles. That was one of my highlights, to watch the mail drop.
"I went to college to get away from my father's work ethic. It took me 25 years to finish because I played all the way through. They pulled my deferment and I went in the Army right after the Korean War. They sent me to Columbia, S.C., and Fort Knox.
"I didn't know they were preparing me for the Vietnam War because it wasn't a full stage war. They were just sending advisers over. I ended up in Fort Bragg and came home, and I was put on the reserve list.
"Down in South Charleston, they were building personnel carriers and they trained me to be a welder through FMC Ordnance. I welded there for 12 years.
"I was adventurous. I wouldn't have minded going to Vietnam. I cannot sit. I've got to go do something. I want to wear out, not rust out. That's why I've been in Norway, Germany, Africa. I'm learning by seeing. People say, 'Aren't you scared?' I say, 'No, I'm from the West Side.'
"I've got a picture of me taking rocks off the Berlin Wall a week after the wall came down. I was a member of the Kiwanis Club, and they had a trip to Norway. On my African trips, the one to Nairobi was through the Gideon ministry. I just got back from another trip to Nigeria. There's an African with Bayer Crop and he liked me and he took me over there for a wedding. Those people took care of me like I was a baby when they found out I was an old man.
"I worked at FMC Ordnance, DuPont and Carbide and retired from John Amos after 25 years. Every job I go to, people think I'm smart because I run my mouth.
"At John Amos, they took me off the floor as a maintenance mechanic and made me something I couldn't even spell. I was an expediter. I did that for 18 years. If a piece of ordered equipment was delayed, my job was to find out what it would take to get it to the job site.
"I've been mentoring men at the South Central jail for about 18 years. When I first started, I made a mistake. I would begin to help people get out. Then I thought no, they've got a record. So I don't help people to get out, I help them not to go back. I learned that by doing.
"I discovered these people in jail had children. I started a service called Family Youth and Development, mentoring children whose parents were in prison.
"I don't want to say I preach to them. I'd rather say I mentor to them. I try to deal with them the same way I do with my seven kids and 25 grandkids, and they've all turned out pretty good.
"I believe in child abuse. I abuse them now so the law won't abuse them later. If I have to chop and hack on them, I do what I have to do to get their attention.
"Meanwhile, working at the Kanawha Presbyterian Church, I met the people who started this center run by West Virginia State University. I asked them if I could clean the building for a fee and an office. That's the way I run my service. I call myself the old janitor.
"About three years ago, my wife was feeding some kids I was mentoring and she asked them if they knew where the corn and green beans came from. They said Kroger, and they were serious. So immediately, I started community gardens and it has exploded.
"See that plow in the picture there? I took that plow and plowed up a portion on Sixth Avenue and Rebecca Street. Larry Poore, the lawyer, allowed me to have this plot of ground. Last year, I had peppers, tomatoes, beans, anything you could grow, right there in the heart of the West Side.
"My strategy is to bring people together, kids and adults. I have another garden across from Shining Way.
"I don't like to depend on grant money. If you depend on that and the grant is gone, you don't have any money. People make contributions to me through the West Side Neighborhood Association. They write a check to the association and the money is put there for me.
"We're going to do urban farming and have an outdoor classroom and a children's discovery garden.
"The highlight of my week is Wednesday at 10 o'clock. I go to Venture Lanes and bowl with mentally challenged children and adults. They actually taught me how to bowl. I don't know who's having mental problems, them or me. For three and a half years, I've never missed being with them. I want to encourage them but they encourage me.
"I went away to a laughing clinic in Ohio that certifies people to get people to laugh. I was going to open a therapeutic laughter thing, but it was taking too much away from my main goals, like the jail ministry. I'm going to start it back up. I've got all the paperwork.
"The saddest time in my life was going through a divorce. Karl Marx said religion was the opium of the people. My religion is Christianity. Christ came down, you accept his plan of salvation, and that is it. Religion is when you fight everything to please God. Religion actually caused my divorce. My wife became very overzealous. I felt more sorrow for my wife than I did anger. She left a good man like me.
"Then I married Phyllis, a very nice woman who helped me overcome a lot of things. I'm so blessed.
"It would be an eternity to tell you my experiences. I've had an excellent life. I only regret the divorce, but I overcame that.
"I wish blacks would experience the era I came through. They have so many advantages now. But I don't look back. Don't drive forward looking back or you will crash." Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.