By Mindy Crandall
Heart of the Ozarks Healthcare Center is a nursing home facility that peacefully sits on a hillside at the four-way stop of South Highway 5 and West 76 in the Fox Meadows Addition. Heart of the Ozarks is just as glorious and secure as a bird’s nest built among the highest branches of a tree. It has been and is a home away from home for many residents. Just past the threshold of the double doors is life, laughter and inspiration. One particular resident, Tom Hawkins, is no exception. This is how the story begins….And the inspiration behind it.
Each week at the Douglas County Herald I type well over 35 correspondents, Heart of the Ozarks Healthcare Center is one of them. Over the course of the years, I have typed Tom Hawkins’ name several times as he continually participates in activities at the health care center, which sends an article each week. I must admit, that after so many years of typing the same news worthy events, it becomes almost like an episode on a soap opera. I, on more than one occasion, have been left in suspense or even wondering about the turn out of particular events to the families, which are written about. This, I guess you could say, was my first encounter with Tom.
The second mentioning of Mr. Hawkins began at my own dinner table. As it is a nightly routine, my children and I were eating dinner when the question was asked, “How was your day?” My children each took turns answering. My second son, Nate answered, “ I met the coolest guy today when I went to the nursing home with National Junior Honor Society.” His eyes danced as he was truly amazed and inspired when describing this man’s ability to build and create homes, barns, farm machinery and churches out of popsicle sticks. It was none other than Tom Hawkins.
Now, as any parent knows, any time your teenager gets excited about anything more than sports, video games and girlfriends, it is not only a blessing, but also sparks an interest within you as well. I knew I had to meet this gentleman myself, but when?
Opportunity fell upon me one day last week as Connie Burris, Heart of the Ozarks Healthcare Center activity director, asked me to judge the St. Patrick’s Day festivities at their facility. I had a blast and for the very first time, I didn’t come to the nursing home wishing I was Jesus and could heal the sick, but rather listening to God. There was life within the four walls of this building. Laughter lingered throughout the halls. I no longer saw these folks as old or lonely, but full of life. Connie escorted me and two other judges around, stopping in the rooms of several residents. Talent was everywhere! On Friday, March 16 I met Tom Hawkins and I too was amazed by his creations. I was so amazed that it inspired me to write this article about him.
Monday, March 19, I along with my three younger children decided to visit Tom Hawkins again and to further inspect his work up close. We all enjoyed the time together. He not only had talent, but was also very witty. I enjoy his same obsession to express one self through masterpieces.
This, however, is what I learned.
Tom Hawkins lived most of his life near Ava, in the Mound area with his mother and worked on the family farm. He attended Mound School, a one-room schoolhouse. Mound School is one of the many buildings which Tom has designed out of popsicle sticks. He admits, it is true to form as best as he can remember, complete with a picture of George Washington, wood stove, Christmas play stage and chalkboard. The day after Christmas in 1997, Tom realized that his mother’s health was failing and that he was no longer able to take care of her – the nursing home was the best option. Since that time and prior to becoming a resident himself, Tom volunteered a lot of time to the facility changing light bulbs or whatever else was needed. His mom later passed. About four years ago, Hawkins, had a close friend take him to the hospital as he was in much pain. He found out at the time that he had a bleeding ulcer. The doctors recommended a special diet and treatment. Still problems arose. At this point, the doctor’s only recourse was surgery. Tom underwent the handiwork of medical staff and for three days afterwards was unconscious. The doctors never felt he would recover, leaving him at death’s door. The Lord had other plans though. Tom miraculously recovered, but the recommendation was made, to no longer live alone, but find an assisted living home. Since he was already familiar with Heart of the Ozarks, the decision to stay here was easy.
Although Tom never married or had children, he has a host of family who visit him often. Some I recognized in a photo and one has even spent time at my house. A simple connection.
Since becoming a resident, he has become the president of the Resident Council, participates every year in the Golden Age Games – winning several medals I might add, teaches Bible study each week, as well as, preaches every Saturday afternoon after Norma Stillings plays the piano.
He attends Bethany Baptist Church every Sunday and was ordained a pastor a few years back. He has preached several funerals of those who passed away while at the nursing home, per their request. He mentioned he would continue to do so if asked.
Tom’s room is covered with his art projects – some of my favorites – the replica of the Mound School, a church, the rotating ferris-wheel made from popsicle sticks, a piece from a VCR and pen parts and the many puzzles displayed on the walls. His attention to detail is impeccable.
I had to laugh, while taking the church down from the shelf on which it is stored in his room, Tom said, “Don’t worry about dropping it, it will just give me something to do.” “But if you do, pick up all the pieces.” Luckily, I didn’t have to worry, it was placed on his bed unscathed.
Tom doesn’t use any sort of blueprints or plans…creativity flows from his brain as freely as the rushing waters of the Colorado River. However, it does require a box of popsicle sticks, a case of glue and a month or two of his time.
The first building he ever erected was a log cabin built of sassafras limbs. When at home he used peach tree bark pounded, and cut to look like wooden shingles.
My children and I truly enjoyed Mr. Hawkins. His wittiness kept us laughing in a place not so commonly known to raise spirits. Your talent is my inspiration, as well as your laughter.
I thank you Tom for your time and your willingness to share your treasures. Soon I will bring in my box of sticks and a picture of the prettiest red barn I have ever seen, the one nestled in the woods of my grandparent’s farm. We will anxiously await the return of an excellent hand built replica.
We are glad that you call Heart of the Ozarks Healthcare Center your Home Away From Home!
Note: In the future months, we at the Douglas County Herald hope to highlight and feature of few of the residents at Heart of the Ozarks Healthcare Center and their talents.