Standing on the edge of the warehouse loading dock, he leans forward, and spits out a long brown stream of tobacco juice; it lands with a smack on the pavement, already hot. And it’s only 7 AM. That's the way it is in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in August. Very hot, and very humid.
He looks at his watch: 7 AM. The warehouse crew would not arrive until 8 AM so he had an hour to himself -- just enough time, he thought, to sit quietly alone, and plan the coming Sunday's sermon.
After finding a comfortable chair on the furniture showroom floor, he takes a seat, and contemplates his message. Bong, bong goes one of the grandfather clocks, followed by others chiming in.
Right on time, he thought an hour later, as they bonged again in unison at 8 AM. The other warehouse workers and the lady who cleaned the showroom arrived at the store every morning at that time; Monday through Saturday, at 8 AM.
Rev, as he was called by the warehouse men and delivery staff, rose each morning at 4:30 AM, and by 8, he’d usually get done more than most people accomplish in an entire day.
Rev — I called him Mr. Tatum — would leave his home in Coaling, Alabama, a rural dot on the map in Tuscaloosa County, and drive to Tuscaloosa’s Druid City Hospital by 5 am to visit members of his congregation and other friends who were in the hospital.
He was crusty on the outside, tough and battle-hardened thanks to some heroic service in World War II. He also had an attitude toward “city folk” — people such as my family and me who lived in Tuscaloosa and whoRev, to be honest, thought were soft. You would never know he felt that way but you knew he felt that way.
Sleeping past 4:30 AM — well, you know he thought that was lazy. Fair enough; hard work was Rev’s oxygen — he lived and breathed every moment of life which made him someone to be reckoned with. “Work hard, Trotter, better yourself,” he told me, as I was a young kid coming up through the ranks hanging around my family’s showroom and warehouse.
I’d unload a truckload of mattresses all by myself — hard and difficult work, with the summer temperatures in the warehouse blazing — just to show Rev. I wanted to earn his respect; for him to not think of ME as a spoiled city kid, a lazy son of the owner. My grandfather and father both had told Rev no favors when it comes to me; in fact, I think they really told him to be a little harder on me than the others. Make me the example.
Rev was born John Wesley Tatum, on September 5, 1919. I never lost sight of that. Because September 5 is my birthday as well. We all know that sharing a birthday with someone creates a special bond, and through this opening I was able to enter the softer side of Mr. Tatum — we had something in common.
Wesley, as he was known growing up, had been a very bright boy; he loved to read. He devoured every book and magazine that he got his hands on. Born into a dirt poor rural Alabama family, his parents couldn’t afford to buy books. Books were a luxury so young Wesley had to get them at school, or walk a considerable distance to the local library or hitch a ride from someone headed that way.
As I got a little older, Rev began telling me more about his background. He had seen it all and done it all in World War II. He was a tough Marine, stationed in the South Pacific, something he took great pride in. He had a special place in his heart for every Marine he met, regardless of the other soldier’s age. Rev was a heroic reflection of what would come to be known as the Greatest Generation — young soldiers — boys — who were the heroes of World War II.
Mr. Tatum was humble; as fine and decent a man as you’d ever meet. But he was rough, and unpolished, frequently cussing, and dipping snuff. My grandfather hired him right after Rev returned from the war. My granddad had served overseas during World War I. One day, John Wesley Tatum walked into City Furniture, our family furniture store in downtown Tuscaloosa, dressed in his US Marine Corps uniform, and asked my grandfather for a job.
My grandfather had a sixth sense when it came to hiring people — that’s what helped make the family business successful over the decades — and he hired Rev on the spot. It was one of the best decisions he ever made.
Though Rev was tough, crusty and hard on us city boys, looking back, l remember his other side just as vividly.
As a young boy, before I worked in the warehouse, I remember how warm and friendly he was to me. One time he told me that his cat just had kittens and asked me if I wanted one. Sure, I said, so grateful. But my parents nixed it — too many pets already.
When I was 12, I started working during the summer at the store. Mr. Tatum would take me with him to measure carpet jobs — and when we’d stop in newer and more open housing areas, he let me drive. Yes, at 12!
As I got a little older, we’d take each other out to lunch on Sept. 5 — to celebrate. It was our day, our birthday bond and those lunches made for wonderful memories that I carry to this day.
And now for how he came to be known as Rev, a nickname given to him by the guys in the warehouse. In addition to playing a vital role in our family’s furniture business, John Wesley Tatum was a self-taught, self-educated minister who got a divinity degree through a correspondence course from a small seminary in Florida. People and God were his loves; he wanted to meld the two — to be a blessing to those he encountered; to enrich their lives, yet in a modest and humble and often behind the scenes way.
He had an unswerving faith in God and believed that if he lived his life by God’s laws and reached out to others they would follow. But he was never in your face about it. He wound up leading a small country church in Duncanville, Alabama -- Liberty Baptist Church. He loved his family, he loved his country, he loved doing things quietly to help others and above all else, he loved God.
Members of his congregation would come into our furniture store. I was never certain whether they were there to browse or shop or just to see Rev and seek some spiritual guidance. Either way was fine with us. Rev was an asset to our business — an operations guy and a stickler for details, yet a people guy as well who had the salesman’s touch. He loved City Furniture and we at City Furniture loved him.
The years went by and things turned. Though the business continued to prosper, my grandfather passed away and my father was diagnosed with cancer. My dad’s illness was a serious time for the business and we all sensed that we would be losing him. It was a lingering unspokeness. Not only did we have to deal with the sadness of his deterioration, we also had a responsibility to plan for the future of the business. And this juncture may have been Rev’s finest hour in all the years that he worked for us.
He took charge — in a graceful way, not in a way that overstepped his bounds. He helped my mom and my brothers and me develop transition strategies so that the business could run. He went beyond the call of duty; his devotion was never-ending. We were his family, he kept reminding us and he was ours. Rev was the only one in the hospital room when my dad died. That gave me comfort because I know that these two hardened World War II vets (my father had also served) loved each other in that quiet Greatest Generation way. If I could have picked any person I had ever known to be the one to send my dad to his eternal rest with a few comforting words, it would have been John Wesley Tatum.
If not for him, my family would have lost the business.
And then, as the years went on, and we in the family each went our way, and Rev began to age, I learned this. Not only was he a fighting Marine in World War II, this man who loved books kept a diary of his World War II experiences. This diary would later be used by the well-known author Hugh Ambrose in his novel “The Pacific” about the Marine Corps' heavy fighting in the South Pacific during World War II.
Rev would help anyone in need. When a group of Vietnamese refugees arrived in Tuscaloosa, he opened up his heart and his home to them; he even hired three of them to work in the furniture store warehouse.
Years later he retired, before our furniture store closed for good — a reflection of changing economics in the South and the demise of the traditional Southern town square as bigger national chains came to the area. Rev continued preaching and also ran the Water Works Department in Coaling, the small town where he lived. I’d visit him off and on — and he would tell me that he always knew I would be successful and how proud he was of me. Those words from this extraordinary man — a man of God and high standards — meant everything to me.
Shortly before Mr. Tatum died at the age of 92, my youngest brother and I visited him. It had been a few years since I’d seen him. I was shocked to see how much he'd aged, how frail and sick he’d become. He was wearing his Marine Corps cap, and used a walker. I was struck by how strange it was to see him that way; he’d always been so strong and vital. I thought he’d live forever. I guess I was still at the age where I really didn’t believe that time passes.
It was a great visit even though he was in decline, and his memory wasn't that good. But he remembered more than enough. I thanked him for helping me make good career choices after I decided to leave the furniture business. This included his stepping in, without my knowledge, to open an important career door for me.
Like the bond of our birthdays, we shared another bond — an appreciation for each other; I had grown up with him. Outside of my dad, who died too young, Rev was the dominant male figure in my life. I spoke at his funeral. The service was a celebration of his life, not a conversation of sadness. He was a great man: a humble man, a strong man, a brave man, a kind man, and a God-fearing man. Crusty and tobacco-spitting, he may have been the most authentic man I have ev er met.
After the funeral service was over, a woman who knew Rev came up to talk to me. I did not know her. But we understood each other. It was Rev and our mutual love for him that bonded this woman and me; that made our verbal exchange serious and moving, not superficial and bland. Rev had that effect on people — he knitted pieces of the world together, made life better for so many, never asked for any recognition in exchange, and wanted only that which was good.
How blessed I am that it was this man who let me drive when I was 12-years-old.