Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 11, 2012

Some people may know Tom Stubbins as a music teacher. Others know him as a colleague, neighbor or friend.
I came to know Tom as a colleague in 2005, when he was hired as an elementary music teacher for the Rowan-Salisbury Schools. We were colleagues for only one year before I retired and became a substitute teacher.
I still saw Tom occasionally at choral events and was surprised to receive a phone call from his wife, Sandy, in October 2011. Tom doesn’t hear very well over the phone and so she called to ask if I would substitute for him at North and Hanford-Dole elementary schools. Tests revealed Tom had pancreatic cancer and needed surgery, but because the cancer had been discovered early, the prognosis was good. The hope was that Tom would return to school after Christmas.
I was glad to help out, and so began my time at North and Hanford-Dole. The children, of course, missed Mr. Stubbins because he could play the guitar and tell funny stories. I couldn’t do either, so I knew I’d better think of something quick. My only line of defense to distract the children was to say, “Let’s play a music game and the winner will get a treat.” That worked sometimes, but not always. There were still days they asked about Mr. Stubbins, so we made get-well cards.
A few weeks turned into months and finally it was obvious Mr. Stubbins wasn’t coming back to finish out the school year. The doctors said there was no evidence of cancer, but because Tom was feeling tired and stayed nauseated and he didn’t think he could return to work. The children continued to miss him and there were still many days I wished I could play a guitar and tell funny stories.
Stubbins’ recording studio
One day in March, during a fifth-grade class at Hanford Dole, I had a nice surprise. The children were working in groups, when randomly one of the students mentioned Mr. Stubbins had a recording studio. I couldn’t believe my ears. For the past year, I’d been searching for a studio to record a song I had written with a music teacher friend, Dr. Dwayne Robertson. The lyrics were the words to my first book, “Tired of My Bath.” I envisioned using piano, guitar and children’s voices in recording the song.
That very night I called Sandy to see if she thought Tom would be interested. She was excited about the possibility because he hadn’t recorded anything since he had been sick. Tom agreed he wanted to help, so we got together later in the week. Tom and Sandy’s 8-year-old twins, Cora and Tommy, were perfect for the song. They sang the lyrics, I played the piano and Tom accompanied on guitar.
Tom loves everything about music, and Sandy says he can play almost any instrument. In addition to that, he also composes and records. Tommy and Cora have a favorite song of their dad’s he wrote called “Back to the Beach.” It was written a few years ago on the first teacher workday of school. Here are several lines from that song:
“All I want to do is go back to the beach, watchin’ the waves, a cold drink in my hand. All I want to do is go back to the beach, feelin’ the wind in my hair, catchin’ some rays and not having a care.”
The family had gotten home from a trip to the beach just a few days earlier, so when the alarm went off that morning of the first teacher workday, Tom turned to Sandy and said, “Hey, let’s not go back to school. Let’s go back to the beach.” Out of that comment came the song.
I asked Tom what were some of the most fun, memorable times of his life. He said, “Playing for different bands in Canton, Ohio.” Some of those bands were Paula Graham and the Emphatics, Manhattan Skyline and Jimmy and the Soul Blazers.
Marriage ends band-playing days
In those days he practiced a great deal, had late night “gigs” and spent much of his time hanging around waiting for a show to begin. In other words, he was in his element.
Tom and Sandy met when they were set up on a blind date by Tom’s principal and Sandy’s sister. They dated for two and a half years, but it wasn’t until Tom took a job in another town that they began making marriage plans. Sandy said she wasn’t going to let him go without her. She also revealed that Tom’s band playing days ended when they got married.
In 2002, twins Cora and Tommy were born and since Sandy had the better job, Tom stayed home and took care of the children. He rather enjoyed that job because not only did he experience the twins growing and changing day to day, but he was able to write and play his music at the same time.
By the summer of 2005, the decision was made to move to North Carolina for better teaching opportunities. Little did Tom and Sandy know what they were about to face only a few years later.
Both say they couldn’t have made it through this past year of uncertainty, painful treatments, doctors’ visits and financial decisions without the support that has come their way. They sincerely appreciate the help of everyone including friends, family, church members, neighbors and many of their Rowan-Salisbury School colleagues.
Sandy said neighbors on Proctor Drive collected money and planned a get-away for their family to Great Wolf Lodge. They enjoyed this trip a few weekends ago. Hanford-Dole faculty and staff celebrated Tom’s life in the school library on a Thursday afternoon in January. Marvin Moore, the assistant principal, had everyone laughing as he remembered how he and Tom used to sit in the lunchroom and exaggerate about their talents and skills, with Mr. Moore bragging about his basketball skills and Tom bragging about his musical talents. Mr. Moore recalled Tom saying, “In those days, I was the man.” The keys to a cabin on Oak Island for a relaxing weekend for Tom and his family were also a part of this celebration.
Sandy says so many people have been supportive of the family that it’s hard to remember everyone, but she wants to include a special thanks to Overton Elementary School, where she’s a second-grade teacher, for helping Santa the last two years in providing toys for the twins. She and Tom both say especially sweet and touching have been the love and support of their church, Milford Hills United Methodist Church and their pastor, Steve Combs.
A journey like this cannot be taken without leaving impressions on the children involved. One of the first thoughts Tommy expressed was how much he misses his dad. I asked, “In what way?”
“Since Dad’s been sick,” Tommy said, “he doesn’t feel like playing. He used to throw us on the bed. That was fun.”
Sandy then chimed in, “Maybe that’s not because your dad is sick, but because you and Cora are bigger now.”
Tommy conceded to that thought, “Oh, yeah.” Then he added, “Battleship’s my favorite game to play with Dad. He beats me every time.”
While Tommy’s thoughts seemed to be more about activities, Cora’s thoughts were more reflective. Her favorite thing to do is to listen to her dad’s music. She especially likes the original songs he’s written and also likes to hear him sing. Cora’s especially proud her dad is teaching her how to play the flute. In the background, I heard Tommy quietly say, “I want Dad to teach me to play guitar.”
Sandy had a surprised look on her face and said, “I’ve not heard that before.”
Even in the face of adversity and heartache, there’s still laughter in the Stubbins household. Sandy shared that Cora, Tommy and Tom have quite a Three Stooges routine. Who would have guessed these three rather quiet individuals would enjoy performing something like a comedy routine?
To give an update on the latest about Tom’s cancer, a few months ago he found out it has returned. This time it has progressed to his liver, and there’s nothing doctors can do. After receiving the news, Tom talked over the options with Sandy and they both decided the best thing for their family is to enjoy as much quality time together as possible. I asked Sandy if Tom seems scared and she said, “No. He doesn’t seem scared, but he has become more spiritual. Sometimes he questions, ‘Why?’ as anyone would.”
Through the events of this past year, I’ve seen how brave Tom is in the face of this devastating disease. I’ve also seen how much he misses his students and longs to share the love of his music with them. Even though Tom’s not in the classroom anymore, he will always be a part of every student he’s taught, not only through his music, but also through his life.
Tom, I’m glad I got to know you and your beautiful family and I feel honored to call you my friend.
Dicy McCullough’s book, “Tired of School,” is available on, and at local bookstores. Contact her at 704-278-4377.