March 14, 2011

Tom "Bigfoot" Tannehill and his ministry to me

The other day I had the opportunity to reflect on a person whose life ministered to me in ways I had not understood before. I suppose the passage of time and learning about someone's death provides the right opportunity for such hindsight to be made clear.

Tom Tannehill stood about 6-foot-four, and looked like a perfect candidate for a college wrestling heavy-weight championship team. He was so huge that his nickname was Bigfoot. Back in the late 1980s, I didn't know his real name for several weeks after I met him, I think.

Tom was born Deaf, and his friendship with me as a new sign language interpreter gave me a doorway into American Sign Language that few inexperienced interpreters would have access to.

I think our friendship was cemented at the time when we met each other, at the local Deaf club, which at that time was the main hangout for Deaf people--before fast internet connections, social networking, and webcams reduced the need for face-to-face communication.

While having a nice introductory sort of conversation, Tom inserted a sexual joke--something that a number of Deaf people do as a discreet way to check the comprehension level of new interpreters.

I not only understood the joke, I also sharply replied that I didn't care for it.

I think Tom was taken aback by what I said--not only because it indicated that I had understood what he had signed but also because for the most part, non-Deaf people aren't as blunt or as "plain speaking" as Deaf people themselves. So I caught him off-guard on those two points.

I turned to leave the conversation, but Tom apologized, we changed the subject, and became friends.

During the early years of our friendship, and as my own interpreting skills in American Sign Language advanced, I learned that Tom was a cherished Boy Scout Troop leader, beloved by non-Deaf troop leaders, by non-Deaf council members, and of course by the dozens of Deaf scouts who made up nearly all of his troop over the years.

When Tom asked me to interpret at the week-long Boy Scout camp that was 45 minutes outside of Milwaukee, I agreed. A year later, and for a few other years, I helped coordinate a small cadre of other interpreters for the camp. We interpreted everything from announcements at meals to classes about astronomy--I had to figure out how to sign concepts like "solar eclipse"--and lessons held on sailboats.

Tom's joy at being a Scout as a child and a Troop Leader, mentor, and role model to other Deaf scouts was contagious. He was using his gifts; his work was bearing good fruit.

And then he made a poor, terrible, unconscious choice when a scout in his troop came into his tent one night and manipulated Tom to touch him.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

A year ago this month, news broke that the Catholic priest at St. John's School for the Deaf near Milwaukee had molested hundreds of Deaf boys during their time there as students.

Among his victims was Tom Tannehill.

I remembered that Tom told me about Father Murphy; he told me about having gone to school at St. John's--which was closed a short while before I moved to Milwaukee out of college. Deaf people in the community identified the priest by using the sign for PRIEST, followed by the hand-spelled letter M, tapped at the breastbone two or three times.

When I heard the news about the molestation, my heart went out to Tom: over the years, I had heard he had moved to Indiana somewhere; that he wasn't working with Scouts any more.

At one point, I had managed to learn that Tom was back in Milwaukee, briefly, and I made my way to where he was staying--I want to say it was with his parents at the time.

When Tom came to the door and saw I was there, we hugged each other hard. He invited me in; we sat down to catch up.

And out came his story.

He had been molested by Father Murphy at St. John's long ago. He also had loved Boy Scouts as a kid, and he had gone on to become an Eagle Scout and to live out the Boy Scout's oath in his personal life and in his life as a Troop Leader.

He never suspected his lifelong passion to be stripped away years or even decades later by the unconscious actions taken by a Boy Scout who himself had been molested. But when that scout sneaked into Tom's tent one night, Tom's unconscious found a way out, and unfortunately, Tom couldn't cope, didn't think to reach out for help.

Did Tom go on to molest other scouts...? I honestly don't know; maybe it's better that way. But I do know that someone reported him to the Boy Scout Council, that he was barred from participating in Scouts again, and that he was sentenced to jail when he was in Indiana.

His days as a scout leader, and as a member of the venerated Order of the Arrow,* were gone. And until now, so was his story, perhaps.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

My move away from Wisconsin and from the interpreting profession in the late 1990s had long muted my desire to stay in touch with all sorts of people from that part of my life. So when the story about Father Murphy's molestation made its way to the mainstream media last year, I decided it was time for me to look up my old friend again.

I did a Google search and learned that my friend Tom had died in 2007. My opportunity to reach out to him in light of the news--which included an article from Milwaukee, saying that Tom also had molested students at the school--was gone. Time was up.

Despite the news that could have tarnished my view of Tom, my love for him and my friendship with him are still teaching me. Many who didn't know Tom, and many who did, may now think of him as a monster. But Tom was a friend to me long before I knew of his actions, and Tom was also somebody's son, somebody's brother.

God's love for him--including God's love through me--isn't diminished because of his shortfalls. Maybe God's love for us, and God's love through one another, even becomes more necessary, more warranted when we fail.

These days, when I have an opportunity to respond to someone who I'd rather view as a monster or think as someone to be fearful of, I will need God's grace to remind me that we are each a Beloved Child of God, with a story that at the very least might need telling, and at the very most, might need healing.

Thanks for reading me.


*This was long before I understood about cultural appropriation.


Tom Smith said...

Thanks for sharing, Liz. As someone who was falsely accused as being a "monster," I identify with the individual whether the extent of "involvement" was small or great.

Also having been a "victim" of "rumors" in totally different circumstances it is important to confront sources of "truth" to maintain integrity.

RantWoman said...

Thank you for this.

It reminds me of many important dimensions in my Meeting's walk with an acknowledged sex offender who worships among us and who, as a condition of the program he participates in, is required to identify himself to the congregation (that's what his program calls us).

Also, that's an interesting name sign for Father Murphy. Sometimes in my experience, when a visible figure has also turned out to be an abuser, there will have been conversational hints if anyone picked them up and thought to ask. Did you or anyone else ever think to ask about how that name sign came to be?

Nancy said...

Thank you, Liz, for this beautiful call to love and be merciful.

Liz Opp said...

Tom -

It's a shame when our humanity is forgotten...

RantWoman -

Perhaps because of my naivete back then, or because of my unwillingness to stay at Deaf events until the wee hours of the morning, I never got a glint of such clues. Though with one of my closest Deaf friends, she was very blunt about the abuse she experienced.

As for the worshiper who must announce that he is a sex offender, I wonder how the meeting responds outwardly...? Is there a reminder that we are called to love one another...?

Nancy -

Thanks for dropping by and commenting!


RantWoman said...

Thank you for the question about being called to love one another.

I am reluctant to speak for the whole community, but I think being called to love one another still leaves a lot of room and needs a lot of space for loving one another in different states of psychic and spiritual awareness, moral evolution, struggles with one's own spiritual landscape, and community dynamics. To say the least, I doubt Divine Presence duty is dull.

Anonymous said...

The unconditional compassion you espouse for this unfortunate man is truly amazing. I can't imagine how he felt, losing something so dear to him. I mean, as a man who so obviously loved what he did and was by your account cherished and adored by so many young men, losing their company must have been hard... not only having to leave scouting, but also being torn from the two schools for deaf boys, in Wisconsin and Indiana, where he had so many objects for his affections. In all seriousness, this account of Tom Tannehill's so called goodness is something you may have needed in order to come to terms with being so close to the action, so to speak, but what you may not realize is that for the many who suffered at his hands, this sympathetic account is what's called secondary victimization and as such is truly lamentable. The tendency to blame victims of sexual abuse and make excuses for their abusers is well documented and unfortunately common, as your post aptly illustrates. The way you speak about Tom makes it clear you and others were groomed by him. Pedafiles typically groom adults as well as their intended victims, so that if the child does say something they are less likely to be believed. The way you minimize the other evidence of his abusive behavior and excuse his actions is classic. Accusing the victim of manipulation is a very common tactic among convicted pedafiles and rapists, so your statement that the scout "manipulated Tom to touch him" fits perfectly. Considering his age and massive size it is, of course, laughably absurd that he could have been manipulated by a child, even if he had been abused himself. Regarding that, according to Milwaukee Archdiocese documents Tom was not so much a victim at St John's but a serial perpetrator, grooming new boys for Father Murphy, abusing many of them himself. The idea that his actions where in any way "unconscious" is easily the most absurd of all your claims and forces me to conclude that your delusion runs very deep.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, Tom Tannehill cloaked the dark side of his life. He was my dorm supervisor. I was one of the victim who was molested/raped by him. Believe me, he had done more harm than you know. They saw me and I saw them. It's a tragic as Fr. Murphy and Tom Tannehill worked together as a team.

Survivor 73-74

Liz Opp said...

To the first Anonymous -

You lift up questions and issues I continue to wrestle with.

I don't mean to condone Tom's behavior, nor do I mean to blame the victim. Tom did what he did, and that action is his to bear.

I do mean to continue to lift up the power of Love, and that even abusers are beloved children of God.

To the second Anonymous-

In this case, you are right: I cannot know the harm he did, to you and to the many others. At the same time, I know a bit of what you call "the dark side" of one's life.

Mostly, I am glad that Deaf people continue to open up about what happened and have been pushing for justice.

My prayers go out to you, tenderly and with great sorrow.