By Marilyn Tinnin
The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith. Billy Graham
Dr. Tom McCraney is a very consistent and very uncomplicated man. He can tell you in a New York minute what matters most to him, and his priorities have not changed in the last 50 years. If he had not chosen medicine, I think he would have been a refreshing and successful politician in that, “What you see is what you get,” and he is pretty much the same Tom McCraney no matter who his audience is. He is a straight shooter who really does live his life with an enormous measure of transparency. At a very young 73, he is the patriarch of the McCraney family and he is big into honesty and integrity.
So what matters most to him?
God, his marriage to Jane, his one and only wife of 48 years, and their family—in that order.
The Two Inflexible Rules
Jane and Tom McCraney are the parents of four—Tad (Ward Thomas McCraney, III), Kate, Will, and Patrick. They have 14 grandchildren ranging in age from four to twenty-four, and they are also the most in love, long-married couple you will ever run across. In fact their four adult children all told me in separate emails that Tom McCraney had two inflexible rules: Never disrespect your mother, and do not fight with each other. He made it clear to them that although he loved each of them so much he would willingly die for them, he loved their mother more. She was number one always.
Kate McCraney Brown, now the mother of four says, “We never doubted he loved us, but we knew she was most important. That gave us a sense of security that I am not sure we even realized we needed at the time.” Kate adds that her dad always made it clear that he was their father and not their friend. No yelling. No threats. It was what it was and it was rather non-negotiable. And that was a good thing as all four adult children look back and recall.
“He would tell us, very directly and very often, that our Mom came first. It sounds a bit odd in today’s world where our children are often treated as idols, but he would emphatically tell us repeatedly that his love for our Mom was superior to his love for us,” says Patrick McCraney, the youngest of three boys. Nobody seems to have suffered any long-term emotional anguish over that fact. The McCraney siblings agree that they were better off because of it.
Dr. Will McCraney, who practices orthopedics with his father today said, “I have learned many things from my dad over the years, both in the way I was raised, and now professionally, but the one thing that stands out is an easy choice. The one thing my dad does better than anything else in this world is love my mom. What a healthy example for us as kids and now as adults with our own families to see such a strong love between a husband and a wife.”
That love was the source of security and safety through the unavoidable ups and downs of childhood and adolescence. As Patrick said, “My dad maintained a very ‘long view’ on life. This helped keep priorities and goals in proper perspective for him and our family.”
Whether it involved a disappointment in the classroom or on the athletic field or in one’s status in the high school pecking order, Patrick remembers that his father was steady, even-tempered, and calm. It was always about the “long view” as he calls it. “He would simply remind us to enjoy the moment and to do our best. He would remind us that failure and disappointment are simply part of life.”
In the middle of their adolescence, he was always more focused on the adults he was shaping than the immediate reward of being popular with them or their friends. Such a stance made for some inevitable times when Tom knew he was labeled the “meanest dad around.”
Tom could make a point with fewer words than most! There was nothing heavy handed in the McCraney household. Will McCraney describes “a healthy hierarchy” where no one ever questioned who was in charge and who was not. There was unanimous understanding there.
Tom’s parenting style looked effortless from where the children sat. He was steady, confident, calm, and all those things that command love and respect. Tom, however says, “I took parenting very seriously and I took it as a job that we’re going to do and it is going to take both of us and we are going to do it as good as we can.”
Even though there were few rules, there were high expectations and accountability. But that was not because Tom was a dad who liked to lecture his children. He had some choice ways of communicating things that everyone understood perfectly!
One of the best was, “Be particular.” According to Patrick, this was likely a “hand-me-down” phrase from Tom’s father and Mississippi dialect for “be careful.” Patrick says it was a way to encourage them to “be smart” in the choices they made.
The McCraney kids never left home to go out with friends that their dad didn’t say, “Remember who you are and where you come from.” Will and Patrick tell me that was Tom’s way of saying that everything they did in the outside world was a reflection of their parents, grandparents, and each other. Patrick says, too, that was code for “Don’t betray your values and your upbringing. You belong to God and your parents and don’t forget that.”
Nobody wanted to disappoint Dad. They loved and respected him, had just enough healthy fear to deter them from most bad behavior, but still—that is not to say that there were not occasions when they did try to pull the wool over his very perceptive eyes. Patrick recalls a time during his senior year of high school when he completely ignored the curfew and knew he would face his dad waiting up in his red chair when he finally came in. That was as predictable as the sunrise. Tom McCraney never went to bed till everyone was safely home.
Patrick concocted a wonderful story about car trouble, getting locked out of a friend’s house without his car keys, but knew even as he was telling it that he was not fooling his father. Tom listened patiently, then looked at him and said simply, “Think of a better story and we’ll talk in the morning.” It was a sleepless night for young Patrick, as he knew he would have to tell the truth—the whole truth and nothing less—and face the consequences.
“My dad definitely had the benefit of godly wisdom in raising children. He knew how to walk that fine line between firm discipline and compassion. Sometimes few words were better than harsh discipline,” says Patrick.
Proverbs 17:27 put it this way, “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even tempered.”
The McCraneys, no longer children, agree—that was their dad’s method of operation.
Tom McCraney graduated from Laurel High School in 1959. He had no real idea what he wanted to do or be when he took an aptitude test during his senior year. The result suggested that he pursue a career in industrial engineering. He had no idea what that even was. His math teacher pointed out his proficiency in math and science and suggested petroleum engineering. He had no idea what that was either.
He had a brother-in-law whom he admired who seemed to have a very good career as a pharmacist, so he headed off to Ole Miss with pharmacy school in mind. The first time he ever saw the campus was the day he registered for classes as a freshman. This was long before parents rented U-Hauls to move their children into a dorm room along with “necessities” like refrigerators, microwaves, and all the luxuries of home. Sheets, towels, a few changes of clothes, and that was it—didn’t take very long to settle in.
Tom headed to register for classes, an ordeal in those days that meant one stood in a lot of lines waiting to register for classes he hoped would not fill up before he secured a spot. When wide-eyed Laurel, Mississippi, boy Tom McCraney came upon the line for the pharmacy school, it looked like the longest line he had ever seen in his entire life, snaking outside the doors and around the outside of the building. He quickly decided to change his major because he had visions of standing in that line half of the first semester.
He looked around for the shortest line, found it, marched right up to the front and declared himself a pre-med major. It must have been a “God thing!”
He survived Organic Chemistry and Comparative Anatomy, the courses that weed out the weak from the strong, but not without a few funny stories. Still, he was definitely where he belonged. In 1962, one year ahead of schedule, Tom began his freshman year at University Medical Center in Jackson. He and Jane met quite by accident one night when she and her date and Tom and his date had to share a table in an overcrowded restaurant on North State Street. Jane was a Millsaps student and she obviously impressed the young med student. The very next week Tom called one of his friends at Millsaps and got her to arrange a date because as he says, “I was just really attracted to Jane.” He still is.
Their first date was a day trip to New Orleans to see The Sound of Music. The other interesting bit of trivia is that they went in Tom’s car, a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle. That car remains a sacred cow in the McCraney family history and a key element in the Tom McCraney parenting plan. All four McCraney children called it “theirs” as a first car. It was part of their “rite of passage” since a McCraney did not get a new car until they got a job and saved half the money for a car of their own. Tom refused to bow to the peer pressure of providing a fifteen year old his own slick fine brand new car on the day he received a driver’s license. The VW has had a long life and still resides in a prominent spot in the driveway of the McCraney’s home. Tom drives it often because, “It’s a good car,” and status symbols have never been big temptations for him, as all the McCraney progeny will attest.
Tom and Jane
Tom and Jane dated through med school. He had a Naval commitment to fulfill upon graduation. Jane graduated from Millsaps and headed to Atlanta to teach. As the ever thoughtful and practical Tom McCraney said, “I couldn’t afford to get married.” Aside from money, he had reasoned that the internship was a terrible year to take on marriage because it required much on-call time away from home. He knew of marriages that fell apart during that time as one spouse felt totally ignored and the other felt overwhelmed by the demands of internship. For Tom there was no second-guessing. Little money, less time—he just did not think marriage made sense.
Jane, however, says, “He broke my heart!” She was not at all sure she would ever have a future with Tom McCraney. She was too romantic to think his logic made any sense. She just knew his leaving crushed her.
Tom was stationed at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia, and from June until December, he missed Jane Owen terribly—probably a lot more than he had thought he would. He made up his mind that he would ask her to marry him when he came to Mississippi for Christmas.
So, did he rush out and buy her a big diamond?
Not exactly. But he did buy her a fine set of luggage that he presented to her along with a marriage proposal and an apology for breaking her heart six months earlier. He does admit that Plan B was to give the luggage to his mother if Jane turned him down. She did not. They married the next July at Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church—the very same church Jane’s family had attended her entire life and the very same church where all four McCraney babes were baptized as infants, and the church where Tom has served in leadership roles for decades now.
As Jane and Tom looked into their future back in 1967, they already knew they shared the same values and wanted the same things in life. Tom, in his ‘long view’ way of thinking considered it very important that they settle on a common church. He was Baptist; she was Methodist, but they wanted a church home to be major in their family’s life—a place to be involved and a place to be nurtured spiritually.
It has been just that as Kate McCraney Brown recalled there was no skipping church for the McCraney kids no matter where they had been on Saturday night or how late they had been there! During their teenage years, when she and her brothers complained and asked, “Why do we always have to go to church?” Tom’s reply was always the same. “The McCraneys go to church on Sunday.” Period. End of discussion. She confesses that she has heard herself replying to her own complaining teenagers verbatim, “The Browns go to church on Sunday.”
More Life Lessons
Tom’s faith runs deep. He is not wordy. Neither is he pretentious, but he does operate with a kind of quiet integrity and authenticity that is impossible to miss.
Tad, the oldest of the McCraney crew, describes his father’s example as the strongest influence there has been on every aspect of his life. “He has always ‘walked the walk,” Tad says, “both personally and professionally. That is the example he set for me and my siblings while we were growing up and the standard by which we try to lead our lives today as spouses and as parents.”
There was a lot of laughter in the McCraney household—and some things they laugh about today did not seem at all funny at the time. But Tom had a way of not coming unglued when the children made decisions that were way less than wise ones. Jane explains, “Tom has a very long fuse.” It takes a lot to get him angry. There were many more times of having fun together than being mad about anything. That even temper was especially helpful with four children who were in varying trying stages of adolescence at the same time.
He explains one of his foundational principles was the “Twenty-Year Rule.” “The twenty-year rule says if one of our kids did something and I looked at Jane and she looked at me and we asked, ‘Is this going to be important twenty years from now?’” That was the standard for giving permission many times when they wondered why in the world a child would want to do that or wear that or go there. They were a team, committed to focusing on what was truly important, and it was only in the truly important things that involved safety or character or God where there was no wiggle room.
A Grateful Heart
Jane McCraney knows she has been blessed. She does not take for granted even one day of these 48 years she and Tom have been married. “One of the reasons I fell in love with him is that he was such a strong Christian and such a kind person who is the most honest, unselfish, most generous and principled person I had ever met.”
Empty nest has been kind to them. They are really best friends aside from being husband and wife and “Mom” and “Dad.” Life is not as noisy as it used to be, but it is certainly not quiet either. Fourteen grandchildren and their parents are frequent visitors. Nobody ever leaves their house in rural Madison county without Tom telling them to “Watch for deer.” on the way home. His care-taking personality has certainly not disappeared as his children have left home. As Patrick says, “He still thinks he needs to protect us—even from Bambi.”
Tom still practices medicine with his young partners at Capital Orthopedic Clinic. He has the joy of being his son Will’s colleague and of being a mentor to the younger doctors in the same way the older doctors at Jackson Bone & Joint mentored him back in the early 1970s.
These days, mornings begin with a devotional with Jane. They are currently reading John Stott’s Through the Bible, Through the Year. As you would expect, Jane says, “Tom does not like to go to work without going to God first. “ It was Tom’s mentor who told him to always be honest, trustworthy and sincere, and he has tried to be that with everyone – patients and family. He always prayed for God’s help and continues to pray for wisdom in all the decisions he makes medically.”
Family pictures line the walls and silver framed photos fill the table tops in their family room. It is not hard to trace the story of their marriage and family by just gazing in every direction here! It is a happy heritage and maybe a throwback to the 1950s when pop culture promoted family and love and integrity and honor and all those seemingly outdated virtues.
Tom McCraney’s legacy is strong and so clear in the lives of his three sons and his daughter who are raising their children according to the pattern they observed in their growing up years. They pretty much approach most things asking, “How would Dad address this?” Seems like a pretty good plan.
I don’t think we can persuade Tom McCraney to run for Congress. But it would not be a bad idea.