Finding the right words, or even enough words to describe someone’s life can be a challenge. How does one even begin to tell the story of a man who changed the lives of everyone around him? This question I asked myself over and over again when I had heard Dr. Thomas Macdonnell, better known as “Dr. Tommy”, had departed this earth on July 10, 2022. How do you wrap up 99 years of life in a handful of paragraphs? How can I sum up his legacy with the honor and respect it deserves?
The answer, I would surprisingly find, was at the very table Dr. Tommy enjoyed Sunday dinners, prepared delicious loaves of bread, and treated numerous bumps and bruises for his children and grandchildren.
The Macdonnell family welcomed me into their family home on the morning of July 30. This is the very home designed by the doctor himself. Located on over 200 acres of farmland and nestled at the top of a hill outside of Marshfield, lies a grand garnet-colored home with large white pillars and a great Pyrenees to welcome you upon arrival.
I instantly took notice of the Colonial Revival style decor and sophisticated furniture as I entered the home, transporting me to a different era. I was also greeted by all eight of the Macdonnell children’s senior portraits sprawled across the wall, next to two photos of a young Dr. Tommy and his wife, Ann. The same family features; a charming smile, sharp nose and high cheekbones were present in each senior photo, which made for a warm welcome as I made my way throughout the home.
Handwritten notes, evidence of that famous doctor-like handwriting, were scattered upon the kitchen counter, a cozy hearth with numerous books, and finally Dr. Tommy’s study where he would spend the majority of his final years. Tiled along the study’s wall were a plethora of plaques celebrating all the achievements throughout Dr. Tommy’s life.
When I finally sat down with Macdonnell's oldest daughter, Sally; middle son, John; and granddaughter, Mary Jo, also known as “Joey”, I quickly realized that when God dealt Dr. Tommy’s hand, God delivered a Royal Flush.
The epic life that would unfold for Macdonnell included delivering over 4,500 babies (not including twins) storming the beaches of Normandy, acting as a State Representative, administering the first polio vaccine in Webster county, raising Hereford cattle, penning pivotal health legislation, and even carrying the 1996 Olympic torch just weeks after knee surgery. Sally jokingly refers to him as their own “Forrest Gump” living through incredible and key moments in history, but Joey argued with a smile that he was even better than Forrest Gump.
“We're just so proud of him. I mean, he's bigger than life,” shared Joey.
Enlisting the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Macdonnell fought valiantly at historical battles throughout Europe including D Day; Normandy beach, Omaha beach, and the Battle of the Bulge. Enduring several injuries during WWII, he also witnessed the release of a Russian prison camp in Czechoslovakia and Munich, Germany, and helped liberate prisoners from the Dachau Concentration Camp. After earning two Purple Hearts, and a Silver Star, the doctor decided to return home and “started saving lives and helping humanity in a different way.”
Upon returning home, the doctor attended Drury University (Drury College) specializing in American diplomacy, history, and politics followed by attending the University of Indiana’s medical program. His father Dr. C.R. who specialized as an obstetrician played a large role in his chosen career.
“When he (Dr. Tommy) went to medical school, instead of taking time to focus on one thing, he went and he studied with everybody on everything. He spent months working in the morgue, he spent months working in OB, he spent months working in orthopedics,” explained Sally. “ By the time he was done, he knew so much about everything. He could operate, deliver babies, and he could even diagnose you with a few questions, no blood drawn or tests needed.”
Knowing that a medical treatment center was a need in the community, Dr. Tommy visited local businesses seeking financial support in addition to his own family’s contribution. Around the mid 1950’s, Macdonnell’s wish was soon granted, and the town of Marshfield had its very own clinic, far ahead of its time.
According to his children, his medical practice often expanded outside the walls of the clinic. Macdonnell would take house calls, day and night, deliver babies, tend to illnesses and on occasion bring his children along with him. The children embarked on many house calls and often assisted at the clinic. They would witness firsthand what it meant to serve with a servant’s heart.
“When he came home, he was just daddy to us. Everybody was saying ‘I love you’ all day long and it got to where when we said I love you, he said ‘You know, I hear that all day long, but they don't mean it’,” commented Sally. “I said ‘But what you don't understand is they really do mean it. They really mean it. When they say I love you.’ And they did. I mean, all these people, hundreds, hundreds of people.”
But what is a doctor without his nurse? His wife, Ann, an LPN accompanied Dr. Tommy for 73 years. Sally describes their marriage as the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, giggling at cherished and hilarious moments between them through the years.
Sally recalls one instance where her mother wanted a credit card, a Discover card to be exact. Firm with his answer, Dr. Tommy repeatedly told her “No, you will spend too much money.” Following their numerous conversations on the matter, one day Dr. Tommy’s blood pressure dropped leaving him unconscious on the floor. Ann, quick to her senses, performed CPR knowing the nearest ambulance was in Springfield. Her compressions ultimately saved his life and when Dr. Tommy regained consciousness, Ann made sure he heard the words “Now that’s worth a credit card.”
Stories like this were repeated throughout the interview, filling the kitchen with laughter.
The two raised eight children, all of which kept the doctor and nurse very busy. The Macdonnell children were what can only be described as “free-range”. Barefoot and fearless, the children investigated every acre on the farm with no worry, there was always a doctor in the house.
Additionally, Dr. Tommy spent his free time raising and showing Hereford cattle with his children at both the local and national level. He even considered himself a “tree” farmer and received recognition from the Missouri Department of Conservation for his work in forestry.
Dr. Tommy’s success and involvement in bettering the world around him continued well into his later years. When “retiring” from his clinic, the doctor looked for a new area to doctor up, and that included the House Floor. In 1986, the doctor ran for State Legislature on the Democratic ticket for the 140th District. Running under the democrat banner and winning had rarely been accomplished in Webster County before. However, Dr. Tommy won and even earned himself the vote of the chairman of the Webster County Republican committee. Dr. Tommy was reelected to that seat for the next three terms.
During that time, Dr. Tommy worked tirelessly to enact legislation focusing on health issues like the Clean Air Act- prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors, and countless other health-related bills.
It appeared Macdonnell found success in every avenue he took. But after spending the morning and afternoon with his family, I found the true treasure of his life: his family. The conversation between myself and Macdonnell’s kin did not focus as much on his infinite accolades, but on the moments within the very home he helped build. Dr. Tommy's sudden passion for baking bread, singing songs at Sunday dinners, cutting thistle in the 100-degree heat, and recalling comical stories of the past; all of which brought out that famous Macdonnell smile in all three family members.
“We would all get in the station wagon and go to Leog’s Tea House or the Pizza House. Stop by McDonald's on the way home and take home hamburgers for 10 cents a piece,” shared Sally. “ He and I would take the horses out for a ride on Thanksgiving Day in the snow. We fished in the pond and always lost all of his tackle. There are a lot of good memories and a lot of funny stories.”
Joey spent her later high school years living with her grandparents and kept a close relationship with him up until his final years. He was not just her grandfather, but also a father figure in her life.
One day sitting alongside his bed at the hospital, the two spoke about the doctor’s life.
“I was talking to grandpa and I asked him, ‘What is your greatest accomplishment?’ He said ‘my eight children.’ And I said ‘what's your regret?’ And he said ‘that I didn't take mom (Ann) on more vacations.’ That was my wake-up call,” explained Joey. “It was important because it was at that moment I now put my family first. Before I always put work first, and when he was in the hospital, I didn't go to work. I went to the hospital, and I sat there with him… Had I not had that time with him, that would have been such a huge regret. I think it just helped me have peace and it gave me closure….and taught me a lesson. Family is what is important…”
In addition to being a devoted husband and father, much of Macdonnell’s life had been dedicated to service. His children and grandchildren were given a front row ticket to a once-in-a-lifetime kind of man, as well as the community of Marshfield. Dr. Tommy truly belonged to the Greatest Generation, of whom there are so few left. His sacrifices and service made our modern American life possible and made the close-knit community of Marshfield what it is today.
I begrudgingly admit I knew very little about Dr. Tommy before sitting down with his family and conducting extensive research. All it took was one drizzling Saturday morning sitting at the very table his life revolved around to make me understand a true hero lived among us. One I wish to have known.
To honor his legacy, I will retell the stories shared by his family and live by the words of the good doctor himself. When asked what words of wisdom he would give future generations in a past interview, he stated “Be honest and work with others. It’s so easy to be nice.”
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