A Daughter's Reflections of Dr. Thomas F. Alford
by Emily Ruth Darnall
as printed in Early History of Pike County, Arkansas,
published by The Pike County Heritage Club
in 1978 and reprinted in 1989.
Used with permission
"Daddy, do you like apples?"
"Yes, Baby, I do."
I really had never cared much for apples, always preferring to spend my nickels for candy, but as Daddy sat on the back steps peeling a shiny red apple with all the precision and neatness that characterized his work as a surgeon, I wanted that apple I sat down and nestled as close to him as possible. He continued his peeling and the skin fell in red curls from his knife.
"Daddy, why don't you say, 'Do you?'"
Looking down at me he laughed and with a hug, handed me the apple. Daddy's laugh was a soft chuckle -- the merriment showing in his eyes more than by the sound he made. The look he gave me was one of amusement mingled with love and pride -- pride that only a father can feel for a little blonde, five-year-old girl, who looked so much like him.
As I think back over that incident I see how characteristic it was of him. He was always giving to those around him, especially to his children. Perhaps his giving, compassionate nature was a result of a need he had experienced early in his childhood. He grew up the son of a country doctor who was home with his family very little and of an invalid mother who died when he was just a boy. With no one to oversee his early life, he roamed at will through the woods and small community where he lived. Feeling deeply the need to love and be loved and finding no human concern always available, he knew early the spiritual presence of his ministering angels. He told of a time he climbed a tree and fell from a great distance. He lay unconscious for several hours for it was almost dark when he came to an awareness of where he was. Later he knew he had fractured his skull but at that time he knew nothing to do except to go home and get into bed. For several days, he related, he could not get up, but divine nature took
care of his healing.
Thomas Franklin Afford was born in 1874. His birthday was on Friday the thirteenth day of March. He always laughed at superstitions and said Friday the thirteenth was his lucky day.
In his boyhood, good schools were limited but he got what education was available. He possessed an avid desire to learn, along with a special gift for learning. He had what we call today a photographic memory. But then he just knew that underneath that mop of golden curls and behind those twinkling blue eyes, there was something that enabled him to remember anything he chose.
At the age of seventeen, he had finished the schools available and had secured a teacher's certificate. As he taught the desire to learn more grew within him. Particularly he longed for a knowledge of medicine. His father had gained most of his medical training with the Confederate army during the Civil War, but Tom knew that he must have more knowledge than his father did. During his first year of teaching, a very learned man, with degrees from an eastern college moved into the community. He took an interest in this bright ambitious young man, and made available to him his library and his knowledge of science and the arts. After one year of teaching young Tom Alford knew with a certainty that there was a purpose to his life which he must fulfill. He later confided to us, his family, that he made this vow to God:
"Lord, if You will show me the way -- if You will make it possible for me to graduate from medical school, I will devote my life to Your service in the field of medicine, giving of what I become to the people of rural Arkansas"
It seems that from such an unlikely beginning, God must have had His hand on this young man's shoulder, for otherwise he could not have attained his goal. As a country boy, he took a very adventurous step in going to St. Louis. He presented himself to the registrar at the St. Louis University School of Medicine and asked for admission. After inquiring about his credentials from the college he had attended and finding there had been no college, the registrar informed him that it was preposterous even to entertain the idea of admission. However, this persistent young man would not be deterred. he had come too far to be turned back, so he asked about taking the entrance examinations. They were to be given again at mid-term, so until then the young Tom audited classes, visited the library and literally consumed al1 the chemistry and anatomy books available. He had no money and had to resort to odd jobs, often tutoring other students, in order to remain in school.
When the testing time came he entered the classroom with thirty young men, all college graduates, and began an arduous period of answering questions. The exams began at eight o'clock and continued until five in the afternoon. There was a period of three weeks before the grades were posted. One morning as he entered the hall of the admissions building, someone called to him, "Hey, Alford, you did it!" To my father's surprise, his name led the list with the highest grade of those who had been accepted into the medical school.
After graduating in the top ten of his class, Tom Alford was true to the vow he had made. He rejected some very attractive offers to go to larger cities in order to come back to rural Arkansas.
He married Eletha Davis, daughter of a prominent farmer, and began a practice that would continue for fifty years in Howard, Hempstead and Pike Counties. For years the only mode of travel was by horseback with his medicine and instruments carried in saddle bags. He forded steams and climbed the hills at all hours of the day and night The "Model T" was a welcome boon to his practice but it also had its problems. On a cold winter night the radiator had to be drained, then when he got a call, water had to be heated and the radiator filled. Not the least of his troubles was the crank that had to be used to start it. If the spark were not in the right position, the crank would kick worse than a mule. Many of his patients came to him with broken arms, victims of that vicious crank.
My father was a man ahead of his time. With no miracle drugs -- but always up to date on the knowledge available, along with faith and dedication -- miracles were performed under his skillful hands. Bones were set, operations were done, and babies were delivered without his ever losing a mother at childbirth. During the time when pneumonia was a deadly disease, he was known as "the pneumonia doctor" because of his skill in treating it.
When my father died, an old black woman wrote a letter to my mother saying:
"The good doctor has always been our friend. In the darkest night, when we were sick and helpless, he would come to us. When we heard the wheels of his car stop and saw him at the door, we knew everything would be all right"
Yes, the hands that were so steady in peeling apples for a little girl were the same strong hands that guided and soothed scores of people for as long as he was physically able. As his daughter, I continue to experience their steadying power and feel his presence. Greater still, I have the knowledge that he gave me of another Hand -- a Hand far more infinite and powerful. The Hand that guided my father as a country doctor is today assuring me with the words, "I will not leave you comfortless."
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