Thales Latimer Secrest. “Tom” Secrest was my friend for 30 years, yet somehow I never knew his given name. Good thing, too, because I would’ve called him Latimer. He’d have hated it, but he would have grinned because he appreciated cruel humor — even at his expense. Such was the nature of our friendship, and the best friendships, I think, because a good friend will take you down a peg or two when you need it and even when you don’t. A pre-emptive strike, if you will.
Tom had a few pegs on me. I’m guessing he stood 6-foot-3 or so. Always well-dressed, dignified, and I wonder if I ever saw him in anything but a suit. Always a hat, and in winter’s chill, a trench coat.
I called his best friend, Al McIntyre, last week to reminisce about Tom, and Al shared a story about their friendship. Tom told him one day that true friendships are rare, and that most people just have acquaintances. “But with you and me,” he told Al, “it’s like we undress in front of each other.”
So for years, as the guys gathered for coffee each day, Al took delight in announcing when it was time to leave, that he and Tom had to go get naked.
We talked about the substance of friendship, Al and I. Loyalty. Honesty. And, of course, a sense of humor. I’ve told this story before, but good stories bear repeating because they’re as rare as true friendship.
One Wednesday, after his horrific beating in the Adams County state’s attorney race, Tom dutifully arrived at coffee to take his medicine. “Hey, Tom,” Al yelled, “Did you finish picking the gravel out of your ass?” Puzzled, Tom could only muster a weak “Huh?” “From the landslide that buried you!” Al cackled. Humor. Cruel humor.
Al recounted the story to Tom in the nursing home a couple of days before he died, and Tom, diminished by 93 years on this big blue marble, still smiled. But really, only time could take Tom Secrest down a peg.
Al and I talked about the radio show that he, Tom and I did each week in Hettinger, N.D., and as you can imagine, Al, the owner of KNDC, was the chief instigator. He’d raise a touchy subject about local politics, drag skeletons out of the closet, and Tom and I always took the bait. We not only examined the skeletons in snide detail, we danced with the bones, and so the following week one of us would be in “Apology Corner,” a staple of the program during which we’d insincerely apologize for what we’d said the week before.
Tom and Al were Republicans; I was the voice of reason, but I learned more about politics from Tom, chairman of the North Dakota GOP from 1964 to 1969, than anyone since. I learned it was often more about pragmatism than idealism, that the nuts and bolts of the process were critical.
Pragmatism. Once, when a longstanding party member, a thorn in Tom’s side, bristled at the changes afoot and puckishly announced his retirement, fully expecting everyone to beg him to come back, Tom picked up the ball and ran with it. He organized a farewell party complete with glowing speeches and an ostentatious plaque commemorating the man’s glorious tenure. Problem solved. “He had tears in his eyes,” Tom laughed mischievously.
He started out as an LBJ Democrat — Tom was from Texas — and remained a populist, but he opined that as one matured, reality set in, and you became a conservative. Let’s leave that one alone for now.
There’s much I didn’t know about Tom until I read his obituary. For instance, that all eight Secrest boys (there were two girls) served in the military. Waylan died in World War II. Tom enlisted in the Coast Guard after high school during the late stages of the war.
He didn’t talk much about the past. He was always moving forward, always had some get-rich scheme that invariably fell short. He may have lost a small fortune along the way, but he never lost his sense of optimism or his sense of humor. I’ll miss it all.
© Tony Bender, 2020