Inspiring Okeechobee: Thomas Barber, He Inspired a Town

OKEECHOBEE — Thomas Barber: A man that inspired a town.

I felt a little odd asking to go to the home of a dying man last week. I knew that this would be a story where there would be tears shed before I ever stepped out of the car. I am struggling yet to understand “timing” and to know that I now had asked to barge in at a time where family and friends are mourning what is a certain future on an uncertain timeline. Thomas passed away Easter Sunday.

Thomas Barber was dying last Thursday afternoon when I arrived at the oak lined driveway leading to the family’s home on a beautiful spring day. The reality of this certainty was made clear by the hospital bed which had overtaken the living room of the home, the numerous cars in the drive, visitors coming in and out with food and a mood that was tempered with the gravity of the situation at hand. This is not to say the mood was always like this, as there was laughter of memories, fun times, and reminiscing of a vibrant man who was at the center of his own celebration of life, but could not participate. Thomas’ partner Donna Walpole, mother, Helen, children, Mary Kathleen (Brandon) and Joe (Jorden and baby Presely), sister Joleen along with a host of other family members and friends have all taken turns watching, waiting, loving, praying over and supporting Thomas through this journey we call life.

The Thomas Barber family. Daughter Mary Kathleen Farless, Thomas Barber and son Joe Barber.

I also thought of the irony of this story being published on Easter, but in Thomas’ weakened state we decided it best to wait to tell this story out of respect for the family whose attention was focused solely on Thomas. What a great Easter story of a man who has traveled a difficult road or as they say in Spanish, the via dolorosa (the way of suffering) here on Earth. For those who believe, Thomas would likely agree, this is a great Easter story.

Thomas was given the diagnosis about five years ago: Cancer! For Thomas though this news came after he spent time in recovery at Dunklin Memorial Camp. To battle and win the fight against addiction, and receive the news nearly a year later that your days are numbered by cancer, seems as if it’s a cruel twist of fate. For Thomas, it was an opportunity.

The diagnosis came with a hitch: doctors told him that he had prostate cancer which had already metastasized. On top of this news, he was told there was also a large tumor in his leg. His option was to have his leg cut off to remove the tumor and he was given six months to one year to live. Daughter, Mary Kathleen recalls that Thomas took this news in stride and wondered, if this would be a “one limb at a time” type of deal. Thomas went home and prayed. He contacted the doctor and told him that he prayed and that he didn’t think that God wanted him to have his leg removed.

Thomas contacted Dr. Kumar and began treatment right away. While undergoing 45 radiation treatments, Dr. Kumar, encouraged Thomas to write to different institutions to see if anyone would accept him as a patient. Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla. responded and agreed to see Thomas. He started treatment with Moffitt but was recently told that the treatments were no longer working. Thomas accepted this fate and even until last week was out and about in town.

Thomas, like others I have written about, got very involved in working with activities to support the American Cancer Society, and later realized most of the local money raised, did not remain in Okeechobee. Thomas had a vision to start an organization to assist cancer patients with things that insurance does not cover, like transportation costs, meals and other related expenses for those who are travelling to and from cancer treatments.

The pair, Thomas and Donna, also opened the Hope Chest, a Christian Book and Antique Store in the middle of town. “God planted the idea in our minds, to combine our love of God and antiques to support a Christian book store,” Donna noted. She continues, “So many people come in and just talk.

Everyday people tell me how he helped them, inspired them, gave them encouragement. Hope. Thomas’ smile could light up a room with his kindness and love. He is a beautiful person. He went through a terrible time in his life and through all of it, the hurt and pain he never stopped.” Donna smiles as she confides, “He loves to dress nice, wear his starched shirts, and people would tell him he was not sick. He never let the illness overtake him.” When asked why Thomas inspires her, she comments, “His eyes! His determination! His kindness, and ability to love everybody he meets.”

Family friend, Pam Peppers said, “The first time I met him was at Relay for Life. Usually when I meet somebody for the first time, there are people that you meet and you know you’re gonna [sic] love them. The moment that I met him I just loved him. I don’t know what it was. There are people that just suck me in. Through Relay it was shortly after that that he had the vision for Heroes for Hope [a local organization founded to help those with cancer].

“We call ourselves the ‘Originals’,” notes Pam when she talks about those who helped Thomas in bringing the dream of Heroes for Hope to life. Pam also dislikes being put on the spot for fear of leaving someone out, but when pressed starts naming names: Thomas Barber, Nano Corona, Rhonda Townsend, Cynthia Holmes, Terry Auriemma, Bobbi Poole, Beverly Rucks, Renee Sweda, Donna Huth, Angie Griffin, Olivia Hartwell, Tammy Hartwell, Frank DeCarlo, Yvonne Morgan, Dr. Kumar, and she is still not sure she named everyone. She says, “So many more came after the original group started.”

She notes that the organization is still operational but they haven’t had the heart to have meetings because, “It’s his baby. We want to do something, but we don’t want to do it without him or without his permission.” Pam said the group started “Thomas Tuesday (it didn’t have to be Tuesday) when Thomas started to get really sick. She said, “We would all just go love on Thomas.”

Pam continues, “So many organizations have been a blessing helping us. It was his vision and he just did it. It was nothing and it became something. I told him, you’ll never know until you get to heaven, how many people you have affected. It isn’t just this person, it is this person’s family, the next. He has done more since he found out he had cancer, than people do in their whole lives.”

Although she had given me many reasons as to why Thomas inspired her, I pressed on and specifically asked her why Thomas inspired her. Pam laughed and said, “It was his hair! His eyes!” Thomas never had a hair out of place and has the most beautiful eyes. Then she got serious, “What inspires me most about him is he never would give up. He would always fight with a smile on his face. He would hold his arm, and you would know [he was hurting] but he would never say a word. We would encourage him to sit down and rest and he wouldn’t. He always wanted to make a difference.”

Thomas’ mom, Helen Butler is cautious to tell me that Thomas was, “always sweet to his momma. Loving.” When pressed though, the stories came out. She has his childhood history and tells of him being quite a handful, always “trying to play tricks and pranks on me.” Now we were getting somewhere! One of mom’s fondest memories was of Thomas and Ray Domer, flying Ray’s dad’s plane buzzing over her house, after he had been told NOT to go flying with Ray.

Thomas’ family has been in Okeechobee for generations, with his father and grandfather both serving as Clerk of Court with knowledge of the area dating back to the late 1800s. Thomas helped his father at Okeechobee Abstract and Title Company and then later sold real estate. Mom though said what inspires her about Thomas was, “His desire to help others.”

Daughter Mary Kathleen has this to say, “My dad was not under any circumstances perfect. He was human though. He wanted more than anything for my mother and I to be proud of him. When he was going through Dunklin’s program, I can remember getting letter after letter from him about how much better he was feeling about life. He became so much more than just an inspiration to me. He inspired a town. Everyone saw how strong he was through his cancer journey. He helped more people in the past five years than some do in their entire life. To say I’m proud of my dad is an understatement. I’m blessed to be Thomas Barber’s daughter.”

If Thomas could speak to you in this Easter season, he would likely ask you to be kind, generous, and help those around you. He would surely remind you that paths in life can be changed through God’s grace. Thomas, you inspired our town, and now it’s time for rest. To the Barber family, we are sorry for your loss. To Thomas, well done you good and faithful servant.

Leah Suarez is a freelance writer.

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