Athens Review, Athens, Texas

July 7, 2006

Grandparents raising grandkids do it with love

By Thom Casey

Today, many grandparents play a double role by also serving as a parent to those grandchildren. According to the 2000 United States Census, 42 percent of co-resident grandparents claim primary responsibility for their co-resident grandchildren.

Larry Thomas is no different. The 67-year-old grandfather of three is helping to raise two of his grandchildren.

“I’m being daddy and grandpa and enjoying it,” he said.” I spend a lot of time with them.”

Thomas’s son, Jason, was in a trucking accident in early 2005, which has left him paralyzed from the chest down. Jason spent six months in various hospitals and is now confined to a motorized wheelchair. “He’s got such a great attitude,” Thomas said. “He’s doing real good, health wise.”

However, while he may take on a parental role, Thomas is still a grandfather to Jason’s two children. When he goes outside with Aaron, 6, and Natalie, 5, Thomas is determined to make them smile. A creation of his design helps him to achieve that goal.

Thomas built a “Flying Jenny” in his backyard for the two kids to play on. The device consists of a 25-foot-long pole, which spins on a post in the middle when someone pushes on the pole. The device also doubles as a see-saw.

The device was built as a nod to the toys of his childhood, Thomas said.

“I’m sure they used to be pretty common,” he said. “Now, nobody knows what they are.”

From the time the two children were born, Thomas said he intended to make one, but decided to wait until they were a bit older.

“When I was a young’un, we had to make our own toys,” he said. “My dad and cousin built us kids a ‘Flying Jenny’ which was bigger than that one.”

He said he did not make the device full-size, due to the children’s small-size. “When they get older, they’ll be able to push themselves,” Thomas said. “The neighbor kids have helped us to wear it out already.”

The two children have luxuries that Thomas could only dream of when he was child. Born in Athens in 1939, Thomas was raised in the Walton community.

“We never knew we were poor,” he said. “We were extremely hard-working.”

Thomas’s father sold tires, boots and tire re-liners, but did not make much money until the end of World War II.

“All the rubber was going to the boys overseas,” he said. “So, once the war ended, he made some money and bought the place in Walton.”

He attended Walton School District No. 12, and “walked a mile every day through the woods to catch the bus,” he said. The two-room schoolhouse taught eight different grades in one room.

“They lost the school because they couldn’t get 21 kids,” he said. “They had to have a minimum of 21 kids to keep the school open.”

Tragedy struck in 1945 when the family home was destroyed in a fire. “We had gone in town to wash, since we didn’t have electricity,” Thomas said. “The neighbor came and told us the house was gone.”

The family bought another place in Walton, where the children lived until they were old enough to support themselves.

Thomas met his future wife, Mary Ann, in the fall of 1961. “Her mother told her she wasn’t going to marry me,” he said. The two married in March 1962, and had two children, Lisa, born in 1966, and Jason, born in 1968.

“Lisa was the first girl in the history of Henderson County to get a scholarship from the Aggie Club,” he said. She currently lives in Houston, with her son and husband, and works as a CPA.

Over the years, Thomas has established himself with various businesses. He owned a service station, Thomas Conoco, which later became Thomas Citgo, for 25 years, but sold it in 1993. Today, he runs Thomas Mini-Storage, located off State Highway 19 in Athens. It opened in 1973.

“We have two locations,” he said, “and 250 storage spaces. We’re just raising grandkids now, and taking care of family business.”

Then came Jason’s accident.

“We kept records and there was between 350-400 people that drove from this town to Harris Medical Trauma Center in Ft. Worth to see him while he was in there,” he said. “Everybody in town knows him and knows us.”

The family persevered, in no small part thanks to faith and friends.

“The main thing that all this is to take time with the grandkids,” he said. “Our faith and the people that are our church friends is what has got through all of this.”

When he’s not working or spending time with his family, Thomas enjoys hunting, simple carpentry, doing work for Faith Fellowship Church, which the family attends and collecting Native-American artifacts he finds on his hunting treks. A grindsaw that was used to make meals was found by Thomas in Colorado.

Tomahawk and arrow heads that he found in Mason, Texas, are displayed in a glass case that Thomas built.

“I made it out of wood that came out of my schoolhouse,” he said. “It was falling down, and made that.”

His hunting adventures have taken him all over the U.S. and into Canada.

“I spent five to six years in Saskatchewan, Canada,” he said. “I enjoyed it, but it was cold.”

The back patio of the house has its wall adorned with deer and elk heads, along with a few other animals that Thomas has killed. But the biggest kill doesn’t belong to him.

“That’s my wife’s,” he said, pointing to one adornment. “That hurts, doesn’t it?”

To bridge the gap between past and present, he watches little Natalie play a computer game.

“The kids will never know where they came from,” Thomas points out, “unless you building a ‘Flying Jenny’ or show them how to push wagon rings. Everyday shows me that I haven’t seen it all.”