Monday, March 7, 2011
My father died last night. More people read my blog than will read his obituary in the local newspaper, so tonight I will devote the post to my father, Dr. Thomas P. Kearns. My father was born on April 12, 1922 in a little town back 50 miles of gravel road in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, Ravenna. His second generation immigrant Irish father worked as a section gang worker for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. The house he was raised in was built into a steep hillside over a dirt cellar. I believe it may have had only two rooms plus a bathroom. His parents bought it for 700 dollars. My father recounted that he was not allowed to go over the hill on which they lived as there were hillbillies back there who were dangerous. In high school he began working in a store that must have sold general merchandise, he told me the story of a woman who came back to complain that her refrigerator was making ice faster than she could empty the trays, and hoped it could be adjusted somehow.
Something happened with my grandfather and mother during the depression and they separated temporarily, I believe that my grandfather may have developed a drinking problem, and he was unable to support his family and so my father and mother went to live with "Uncle Doc" who was, I believe, actually a cousin once or twice removed. Uncle Doc was a physician in Louisville, Kentucky and even though his patients sometimes paid in chickens, was relatively well off and highly respected. My father idolized "Uncle Doc" and decided that he too would be a doctor when he grew up.
He and his mother then moved to a rooming house where the bathroom was down the hall and I remember him saying how he disliked that. Food was scarce and he and his mother had to eat so many apples from the tree in the backyard that he would never eat them again till he was elderly and then only rarely. He worked at an A and P grocery to put himself through school at the University of Louisville. When he met my mother, whose father had a farm on the Ohio River, he was astonished to see both ham and chicken served at the table. In his home, there was a single piece of chicken put on your plate in the kitchen and that was your meal. In my mothers home, the chicken was on the table and you could have a second piece, or even ham.
Dad finished college and was accepted to the University of Louisville Medical School, the A and P offered him a managers job if he would stay, but he still chose medical school. My father was like many of the depression kids, a very hard worker and determined to rise from the poverty in which he had been raised. He was a tireless worker and as focused as a man could possibly be. When World War II began, the army put him in uniform and picked up his tuition. He and my mother were married during the war and her fathers extra gas allotment as a farmer was enough to get them to nearby Cincinnati for a honeymoon. I have the room receipt in a box somewhere.
After graduation, he was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, he had experience doing refraction with "Uncle Doc" so they had him working with eyes. After the war he applied for further training to a number of schools. This advanced training in those days, was called fellowship, and paid almost nothing but offered lots of work experience and the occasional nights sleep. He applied to the very prestigious program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, not really expecting to get in. When he was accepted to train there as an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) he and my mother moved to Minnesota. After fellowship he was invited to remain and become a staff physician. He spent his entire career at the Mayo Clinic.
My father and mother in the 70's
If you stop and think about what kind of a guy you would like operating on your eyeballs, that was my father. He was precise and a ceaseless, tireless worker. He became one of the first neuro- opthalmologists ( that is he specialized in the nervous system of the eye), in those days it was a tiny and exotic subspecialty and one of the only institutions large enough and seeing enough curious cases to need a full time neuro-opthalmologist was Mayo. Besides practicing medicine he did research and wrote almost ninety papers on the eye. He identified a syndrome that still bears his name Kearns -Sayres disease. Ultimately he became president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolarengology, which at that time had 12,000 members.
His success allowed my mother to collect fine antiques and we lived in a fine home, that was full of beautiful things. When I dropped out of high school and was able to wheedle my way into art school the next year (it WAS the 60's after all ) he gave me a monthly stipend of 300 dollars and told me he would pay my tuition at any school I could get into. He sent me those 300 dollar checks until I was in my thirties. Of course by then three hundred dollars was not a princely sum, but it would pay my rent. That little boost, not enough to make the world go away for me, as I still had to struggle to survive, made it possible to study with Ives Gammel (if I drove a cab at night) and allowed me to live indoors while I learned to paint for a living. If I sold a picture a month I could eat.
I don't think my father had much of an interest in art, I think he thought it was sort of too bohemian. But the first time I had a painting juried into the National Academy of Design biennial and we went to see the show on 5th ave. in New York he started to come around. So he was supportive of me even though he himself was skeptical of the whole art thing.
After his retirement in 1987 my father who had saved the sight of so many others lost his own to macular degeneration, something in which he was an early expert.For many years he did the best he could finding his way around with only a corona of peripheral vision. My mother and he moved into a high rise for the elderly and lived there, first in their own apartment and then on an assisted living floor. Several months ago he had to be moved to another floor that could care for him as his health deteriorated. I have visited him many times over the last year or two and watched his health slip away. He became weaker and weaker like some toy that runs on batteries that gradually wear out. Last night my sister who was in Minnesota called to tell me that he had died.