Tom's comments about childhood
On April 11, 2006, I visited Payne Elementary School in Wichita which I attended in Kindergarten and First Grade. Payne was celebrating the 50th Anniversary of its building, and I was invited to speak to the students.
The story I related to them is both difficult and exhilarating to tell. Difficult, because it relates the pain of poverty, a failed child protection system, and the vulnerability of some of the children in our society. Exhilarating, because it shows the importance of strong public schools, caring teachers, and an effective child protection system that links children with loving adoptive parents.
The experiences I related to the Payne Elementary School students helped shape my life; character is developed in the way that we meet difficult challenges and face dark days and unpleasant circumstances. If you get a good education, work hard and persevere your life can make a positive difference in people’s lives. I am running for Congress to help ensure that our children get a good education, can safely rise above difficult circumstances, have access to good jobs, and are equipped with the strength to persevere.
-Professor Tom Guild
Payne Elementary School Presentation April 11, 2006 by Thomas Eugene Guild—Formerly a Payne Student Named Tommy Smith
We draw strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live. We shall endure. –Cesar Chavez
A little boy named Tommy Smith attended Payne Elementary School in kindergarten and first grade. He lived on Sedgwick in a small house two blocks from the school. His parents were very poor and his family lived mainly on government commodities for several years. When he was very small his parents divorced. His mother, who worked as a dietician at a hospital, sometimes brought food from the hospital so that Tommy and his older brother Robert would have something to eat. Tommy and Robert were inseparable as brothers. Their allowance of one dollar per month seemed like a fortune and they couldn’t wait to waste it on candy and soda pop, which were luxuries to them.
When Tommy was six years old his mother remarried and the stepfather moved the family to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tommy attended a large number of elementary schools in Tulsa. His stepfather was a violent alcoholic and when he worked he spent most of his money on alcohol. The last school Tommy attended in Tulsa was Springdale Elementary School. One day Tommy and Robert’s parents boarded a bus and went to California. By this time Tommy was six years old and had suffered severe abuse.
Robert had his bus ticket to Wichita paid by a Tulsa police officer and finished high school living with an aunt. He then entered the Navy. Tommy, who was considered abandoned, was picked up by the Oklahoma authorities. He lived at a temporary foster home, the Tulsa Boys’ Home and in a long-term foster care placement on a farm outside of Broken Arrow.
At the foster care farm, Tommy learned to gather eggs, plant crops and milk cows and also lived with his foster brother Charles. He also learned the wrath of his foster mother. When she whistled and if the foster children didn’t return to the house within ten minutes she took out her bull whip and made the children take off their shirts and she whipped them on the back and on the back of their legs. She also bullwhipped them if they spoke without being spoken to first if company was present and if they didn’t eat everything on their plates. Tommy quickly became a member of the clean plate club. If something was served that he disliked Tommy would hide the food in his cheeks and after being dismissed from the table he would go to the bathroom and spit the food into the bathroom stool and flush it without anyone discovering what he was doing.
A bright spot for Tommy was his wonderful caseworker Mrs. Phillips. She was very kind and sympathetic. She often spent her own money to buy Tommy clothes when his allowance from the state ran out. She was the first kind adult Tommy can remember in his life since he left Wichita. Mrs. Phillips had a son named Mike on the Tulsa YMCA Aquatic Club. Dr. and Mrs. Carl Guild had three children—Al, Barbara and Sam on the same swim team. The Guilds had asked Mrs. Phillips to help find them a baby girl to adopt. She told the Guilds that she was looking for a baby girl but in the meantime she had an eight year old boy that they should take in for a weekend.
The Guilds were hesitant at first but because of Mrs. Phillips persistence, they agreed to take Tommy Smith in for a weekend. Tommy was confused and didn’t like the change. He had been moved around so many times in his young life that he desperately wanted stability in his life. The foster family was abusive to Tommy but it gave him continuity in the place where he lived and for the first time in his life enough food to eat every day...
It was all a blur but Tommy was confused at the end of the weekend. The Guilds were very nice people but Tommy didn’t understand why they all clung to him and cried when Mrs. Phillips picked Tommy up to return him to the foster homestead. During the weekend Freda Guild gave Tommy a bath and noticed scars on his back and on the back of his legs. She asked Tommy where the scars came from and he said very dispassionately that they were probably from the bull whippings that his foster mother administered to him.
Tommy learned years later that Freda had reported the abuse to Mrs. Phillips and that the foster care couple’s home was permanently closed. Their family moved back to Illinois to get away from the stench of scandal the investigation had caused.
A few days later Tommy was back at the Guild home and was immediately placed in cub scouts, piano and violin lessons, and taught to swim at the Downtown YMCA in Tulsa. Tommy particularly loved his piano teacher Mrs. Swift and was a natural at the keyboard. He was able to take out his anger and frustration by beating up on the piano. Freda later told him that she could tell when he was no longer upset because the music started sounding much prettier to the ear once he had worked out his frustrations tickling the ivories.
Tommy was a little robot after arriving at the Guild home and did everything he was asked to do without question and without hesitation. If he was angry or hurt he would hide behind the sofa for hours until he felt better and felt like interacting with others. When Tommy was about 8 and ½ years old the Guilds adopted him. When asked whether he wanted to be adopted Tommy hesitated and said yes, but didn’t realize that this was not just another temporary placement in his young life. His new name became Thomas Eugene Guild.
The biggest day in Tommy’s new life was in 1966 when Mrs. Swift named him as her outstanding piano student and presented him with an inscribed golden harp on a marble base to commemorate the honor. He has this trophy on display in his living room today.
In ninth grade Tommy told his adoptive mother that he would take out the trash later after a program on television was over and she got very angry. She later said that she cooled down and was happy that it was the first time that Tommy had not said no, but had said a little later and that he was now comfortable enough to assert his personality and not worry that he would be rejected and abandoned as a result of his actions.
Tommy was bored in high school but didn’t quit and earned his degree. He went on to the University of Oklahoma and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. His final two years at OU he was named the outstanding student in the political science/economics departments and given the Robert Dean Bass Memorial Scholarship. He grew tired of college and almost quit but persevered and finished his degree. He then attended law school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas and was on academic scholarship for three years while at SMU. Law school was a grind but his adoptive father Carl and adoptive sister Barbara convinced him to stay in school. They both attended his graduation ceremony when he received his juris doctorate degree in Dallas.
Tom was married after finishing law school and divorced after taking his first full time job. He took a teaching position at Central State University and completed his career July 1, 2006 at the same institution which is now renamed the University of Central Oklahoma.
Tom makes a comfortable living and now has plenty to eat. He may now eat a little too much from time to time.
That is why I am here with you today. Dr. Seuss said in Horton Hatches the Egg, “I meant what I said And I said what I meant…An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.” It took a long time for me to hatch my egg—and live life—but the foundation and encouragement I received at Payne gave me the tools to cope with life and hatch my egg. My time here at Payne Elementary School was the first stage of a long trip which my life has taken.
The caring of the teachers and the staff at Payne meant a lot to me. They were always kind and thoughtful and fed me and clothed me when I needed the help. Most of all I wanted to bring you a message that no matter what situation you are in, if you believe you can be successful and believe in yourself and you work hard to do well in school and to overcome hardships, you can become anything you set your mind to become.
We have many here today that come from challenging situations. In that way the neighborhood around Payne Elementary School hasn’t changed that much since I attended school here.
I am so honored to be speaking to the students, the families, the former employees, the city dignitaries, the school board members, and the faculty and staff. You made a big difference in my life when I desperately needed help. For that you have my undying thanks and gratitude.
Reach for the stars and if you only reach the moon or Mars or Pluto that’s okay. As a philosopher once said everything that doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Character is developed in the way that we meet difficult challenges and face dark days and unpleasant circumstances. If you get a good education, work hard and persevere your life can make a positive difference in people’s lives. Say to yourself that “I’d rather attempt to do something great and fail rather than to attempt to do nothing and succeed”.
That is the challenge that I leave you with today.
Tom Guild (AKA Tommy Smith)