The Way We Were: Thomas G. Hightower, Sr.

The Way We Were: Thomas G. Hightower, Sr.
Tom Hightower and his friend, Thomas Payne, Jr., Fort Worth, Texas, 1954

Tom Hightower of Lake Side Park has experienced many joys and sorrows during his 86 years. Born December 18, 1932 in Odum, Georgia, Hightower had a hardscrabble childhood.  Times were tough in the rural farm community, then tragedy struck when his grandfather was shot and killed by the father of Tom’s stepsister. Later, in an ironic twist, Hightower’s father, who was a mechanic, died in an automobile accident. 

“There wasn’t much insurance back then and my mother didn’t have any income, so she sent the kids off to her brother’s house in North Carolina part of the time. She took in washing and ironing to keep the family together and pay the $9 a month rent,” Hightower said, describing how she beat the clothes outside in a wash pot over a fire. 

Since they lived near a turpentine still, young Tom would gather the leftovers – a congealed mixture of straw mixed with pine tar – for his mother to use to stoke the fire which, he said, “makes a hot fire in a hurry!” The enterprising lad also gathered the turpentine and straw mixture to sell for 25 cents, “enough to buy a sack of candy.”  

Camping trip, May 1972
Camping trip, May 1972

Hightower related that in his teens he always had a rifle and a shotgun and would go squirrel, coon and opossum hunting. When his mother remarried, they all moved to Buford, South Carolina, where he worked in the garden growing corn and beans, went trout fishing, crabbing and gathered oysters. At the age of 17, Hightower was ready to spread his wings, so he joined the Air Force. 

“I went in the Air Force in 1950. I didn’t have a lot of ‘learnin.’ I didn’t really like school and then jumped out of the frying pan into the fire,” he joked. “I went to aircraft mechanic school, became a B29 specialist. Went to power plant specialty school. Then learned to train pilots in the AT6 and T28 planes. I’d never been anywhere, and Lubbock,Texas is a long way from Buford. I came out of the woods in Georgia and for the first time in my life I had my own stuff and clothes that matched. I learned so much that has helped me in my lifetime. I have met a lot of good people.” 

Hightower’s older sister, Lorie, worked as a hairstylist in a shop in 5 Points near the Green Derby, so he made his way to Jacksonville in 1954 after leaving the Air Force. He went through a two-year apprenticeship and worked at NAS Jacksonville as a Civil Service Employee. He received a plaque recognizing his 37 years of service when he retired in 1987 at the age of 55. 

November 2005
November 2005

Hightower joked that his motto was “Out the gate in ‘88. I decided to retire early. Most people try to get it all together then retire. Next thing you know they are in the ground,” he said, explaining, “You don’t really retire anyway, you just start over.” 

His philosophical approach of living with the hand you’ve been dealt has seen him through tough times – a divorce in 1967 from his first wife and the mother of his children, Yvonne Brinkley Hightower; the tragic loss of his sons, Johnny, to cancer in 2012 and George, Junior, to suicide in 1975; the loss of a granddaughter and the loss of his wife of 34 years, Margaret Wing Hightower, in 2010 add to his sorrow. 

However, the indominable, upbeat Hightower chuckled through his tears as he reflected on the joyful moments that are intertwined with his lifetime experiences: the old Corvair van that he made into a fishing buggy; all the great cars and motorcycles he had; the wonderful trips that he and Margaret took in the old school bus that he converted into a camper – Key West, the mountains, Washington, D.C. 

“We went everywhere. She’d never been anywhere but Vidalia, Georgia, except when she lived in Jacksonville. She worked at George Kelly’s Wood’s Pharmacy on McDuff. That was the end of the trolley line at the original McDuff Pharmacy, which was a little farther down the street,” he recalled. 

On the beach, August 1970
On the beach, August 1970

Hightower’s favorite pastime, besides photography, is dancing. “I met Margaret at the Expressway Club on Southside Boulevard. My sister did one of the girl’s hair and we all went to dance since they knew the band. She loved to dance and to fish. We’d go to Little Talbot Island, St. Augustine and all over. My first wife and I used to square dance. Now I go to the Lane Wiley Senior Center and dance. It’s good exercise, keeps you moving,” said Hightower, who likes country music, especially Kenny Rogers, whom he described as making smooth music to dance to especially the song “Lady.”  

The ever-sensible Hightower, who learned to be frugal by growing up the hard way, bought his 1921 house on Colonial Avenue in 1968 from Henry Walthall, whose mother had owned it. He added to it over the years and did renovations. “It just had a light bulb hanging from the ceiling and it wasn’t a very big light bulb. There was a hand pump on the back porch and there was an apartment in the back to rent to sailors from the base,” he said. 

Margaret Hightower, Key West
Margaret Hightower, Key West

When he and Margaret, a widow, married in 1976, she had a house on Burke Street and when her neighbor put his house on the market, they bought it as an investment. “We bought that one and redid those houses and some others and sold them. I realized that if I didn’t have a house payment, I wouldn’t owe anybody, so I cashed in some bonds and paid off the Colonial Avenue house,” he said. “Now days people just whip out that plastic and struggle to pay for things. Young people just live too damn fast. We give them everything. We did without – you’re talking about a lifetime.” 

Hightower also built a house in Lyons, Georgia where he and Margaret lived until she passed away, then he sold it and moved back to his home on Colonial Avenue. 

Hightower recently received his 50-year Masonic pin and occasionally goes to the VFW Club but said, “Since I don’t drink or smoke, I don’t fit in very well.” He keeps in shape with his dancing and until a year ago was working out at the gym three or four days a week. He suffered a fall, spent some time in the hospital, then moved in temporarily with his daughter, Deborah, and son-in-law, Lou. While Hightower convalesced, Lou, who works from home, fixed Hightower’s lunch and washed and folded his clothes. The care was so good Hightower decided to stay. “I’m wounded, not stupid!” he quipped. 

Moroccan Gala, November 1972
Moroccan Gala, November 1972

His payback is helping with the dogs – two pit bulls, a German Shepherd and an aggressive little Chihuahua. He said the Chihuahua tries to attack, which reminded him of a cousin who used to bite him when he was little. “My grandmother would hold him, so I could bite him back,” he laughed.

As Hightower flipped through the thousands of photographs he has taken over the years of his family, he laughed and cried. The hundred or so photo albums are a visual stroll down memory lane from his childhood and the lives of his children and his eight grandchildren. They chronicle his travels with Margaret and his trips with his daughter, Deborah, as he accompanies her each year on her Women’s National Bowling Tournaments to Baton Rouge, Reno, Syracuse and other places around the country. 

Hightower’s philosophy of “living the hand you’re dealt” is a reflection of a generation forged by overcoming hardships. His is a journey of a life well lived, a life of inspiration for the present generation.


By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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