From Poverty to Advocacy: The Sam Tomlin Story

Published: March 17, 2019

Many people seek to have as full of a life as Sam Tomlin. Before becoming a resident of Friends Homes, Tomlin grew up poor and bullied by area children in Knoxville, Tennessee. His family was so poor, in fact, that when Tomlin developed an abscessed tooth, his father couldn’t pay the full price, $15, to have it removed. Instead, his father offered the doctor the only $3 he had from raising cotton. The doctor agreed, but he would forgo the Novocain. “It was the worst pain I ever had,” said Tomlin. “I told myself then that I would do my best to make sure no other kid ever had to go through that kind of pain.” As an impoverished preteen, Tomlin joined a local gang, but it wouldn’t take long before he knew that he had made a mistake. “We had to risk our lives to leave,” Tomlin said. “Anyone who wanted to quit would have to fight and win against the bigger boys.” When he announced he didn’t want any other part of the gang, he was paired against an older, stronger boy. “It was clear that if we fought, he would beat me up. But because I got to choose where and when we would fight, I picked one of the local swimming holes.” Sam Tomlin was a swimmer and could hold his breath for longer than most people his age. “When we got out there, I got him where I could hold him underwater,” Tomlin said with a laugh. “It wasn’t long before I was let go by the others. No one else wanted to fight me after that.” Shortly after leaving the gang, Sam’s father sold the cotton farm and moved the family to Lexington, Tennessee where he would finish high school and join the Air Force. Tomlin served in the military for seven years, serving in the Philippines and, in the final two years, with the Office of Special Investigations in Knoxville. Tomlin then attended the University of Tennessee, earning a bachelor’s degree in social services and a master’s degree in social work. He also taught ballroom dancing, which is where he met his wife, Ruth. “I became a social worker to help people and kids so that they wouldn’t have to go through what I’ve been through,” said Tomlin. Before long, Sam would be known throughout the area as a significant local activist. When Tomlin began working with the United Way, he gave East Tennessee State University students tours of service agencies in and around Knoxville. Oftentimes, these agencies didn’t have a presence in other areas of the state. During each tour, Sam would encourage students to make a difference in the world by choosing a career path toward advocacy. “I was the Associate Director of the United Way helping with priority planning, but I knew we could do more to benefit the poor.” With this mentality, he began to teach social work, study community organizations, and establish various nonprofit agencies catering to those living in poverty. “I was living in Knoxville in the Halls community and teaching high school freshmen and younger. My son, at the time, was playing basketball, and they needed a coach, so I started coaching basketball. I also started to coach football, but we didn’t have any uniforms to compete. So, I went to the Knox County Parks and Rec for uniforms for the boys.” But Tomlin didn’t stop there. He helped to grow Halls Community Park by 10 acres, to incorporate the club and to build a senior center at the park. To get the senior center, Tomlin and others would have to fundraise. “When the day came for our fundraiser, only four people showed up, but we still really wanted to make it happen. We needed it. With just us four there, one of the guys raised his hand and said, ‘You know, we could do it ourselves,” and motioned for us to do it. Another guy who was there said, ‘Do you realize that we would have to pay $2500 each for it?’ I told him, ‘Yes,’ and seconded the motion to pass.” With big differences made in his community, Sam Tomlin moved to Jonesborough just outside of Johnson City. He continued to form his legacy for advocacy by working with Senior Services where he taught classes and helped to fundraise for expanded facilities, working as a support volunteer on a 24/7 suicide prevention hotline, and even working with an AIDS organization in 1983. “I helped the AIDS Council of the Tri-Cities there that was started by the [East Tennessee State University] students.” Alongside the medical school’s communicable diseases board, together they helped to write up one of the first pieces on how to treat people afflicted with AIDS. “The person who discovered the treatment for AIDS was from Johnson City,” Tomlin added with a smile. But still, his heart tugged towards the “poorest of the poor,” as Tomlin calls them. With a passion for assisting them, he partnered with the Methodist Church to found Good Samaritan, an organization that provides emergency assistance to the poor, low income, homeless, those at risk, children, veterans, and the elderly. Today, one of their buildings is named after him. Altogether, Sam Tomlin has helped to form new organizations and chapters while touching the lives of countless individuals. He continues to be an inspiration every day. When not working to help others, he still goes back to his childhood roots: swimming. “I started competing when I was 57 years old at the Tennessee Senior Olympics.” With only a day notice for practice, he not only finished the race, he won the gold medal. Now, Sam competes at the national competition held every two years. “I hold six state and local records in Tennessee, but at one time, I held 14 including the state record in every stroke.” So, how did such a deep-rooted Tennessean make his way to Friends Homes? Tomlin’s first wife, Ruth, passed away at 59 years old. He remained unmarried until about four years ago when he met his future second wife, Velma. “I took a friend to Atlanta to visit his girlfriend. His girlfriend was supposed to introduce me to her friend who also lived in Atlanta,” said Tomlin. “But when we met, she told me, ‘No, you need to meet Punk. She’s at Friends Homes in North Carolina.’” Punk is short for pumpkin. “We met in Blowing Rock,” Tomlin continued, “and we immediately hit it off, dated for a year or so, and got married. So, here I am at Friends Homes. I don’t regret it for a minute.”

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