By MARILYN TINNIN
Tori Nunnelee—Still Thankful
Tori Bedells Nunnelee’s life story contains most of the elements of a Lifetime movie. There is drama, tragedy, loss, pain, and suffering. The similarities end there because unlike the downtrodden heroine in a television saga, Tori is a shining testimony of resilience, restoration, and God’s amazing grace. She is quick to let you know that her strength comes from her relationship with her Savior, Jesus Christ.
Those who know her well describe her as “joy-filled.” With her deep dimples, warm smile, and outgoing personality, Tori is one who never meets a stranger. A frequent speaker at women’s events, she has a genuine ease about her that leaves you feeling like you have known her always.
Her late husband, Alan Nunnelee was the same way. He was a much loved and respected Tupelo businessman and powerful Mississippi legislator for more than a decade who later served the people of the First District as their United States Congressman.
In their 32 years together, their priorities never faltered. There was the Lord, each other, their children, and serving others wherever God lead them.
Tori was just 14 when her sense of security was first snatched from her. “My dad left us. He didn’t just leave us. He left and took everything out of the bank, took the only car we had, everything—and married a 17-year-old girl.”
The family was just days away from moving into a new home that he and Tori’s mom had spent months planning. In one day, everything she had believed was true about her family was destroyed. She watched her mother struggle through the overwhelming challenges confronting her in the wake of her husband’s actions, but she also saw her mother’s relationship with God change. Church had always been a big part of their lives, but a personal walk with the Lord, day by day, became a vital part of who she was. Her mother modeled for her daughter how to get through the thing you think you will never get through.
The fact that her mother truly sought her refuge and comfort in God’s provision was something Tori recognized as healing and real. Tori hungered to grow closer to Jesus, too. She could talk the talk and appeared to walk the walk, but she could not let go of her resentment toward her father. For several years she felt like her spirit of unforgiveness was an impediment. She knew she should forgive, but the hurt was so deep.
Tori was 18 and a freshman at USM when her world was rocked again. On a crisp afternoon in late October 1976, she and her boyfriend were kidnapped at gunpoint, and held in the trunk of a car while their abductors robbed a store and went on a shooting spree. Hours later they and their friends pulled Tori and her boyfriend out of the car and took turns raping her while forcing her boyfriend to watch.
They then threw her boyfriend back into the trunk and left Tori on the back seat bloody and beaten. When the last man started to walk away, he leaned over Tori and said to her, “Start counting to one hundred as loud as you can. Then you can get up.”
Did she dare hope they were not going to kill her? Even in her traumatized state, Tori had a sense that God was going to see that she lived to see another day. She took the man’s hand and said, to her own surprise as much as his, “I don’t care how high you get or how far you run. I want you to know God loves you. He forgives you, and so do I.”
Did her words impact him? She will never know. Despite a police inquiry and a doctor’s report, the thieves were never identified.
Though scarred and living with memories she can never completely erase from her mind, Tori was able to move forward in an incredibly positive way. She calls it a work of the Holy Spirit in her. It was clearly God’s work.
“I knew I could not live in bitterness, but the thought kept coming to my mind, ‘How can you extend forgiveness to those men and not extend forgiveness to your dad?’”
Finally, Tori realized then she had to forgive her father. It was a milestone in her journey because she understood at the deepest level what real forgiveness looks like. It was not an “I forgive you if…” It was complete and unconditional. She would not pick up her bitterness even if her dad never reciprocated. She speaks often to other women on the subject of forgiveness.
Unforgiveness, in Tori’s mind, is a destructive force that harms the one harboring the resentment far more than it harms the other person.
Believing that there are no accidents in God’s providence, Tori says, “Things happen in your life that God can use because when you go through hard things, you develop empathy for the hurts of others.” Such a perspective helps her apply her life verse, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
She is certain that not one tear or heartache in a Believer’s life is ever wasted. Tori and her late husband, Alan, learned in their great disappointments not to ask, “Why?’ but to ask, “Lord, what do you want to do in this?” The great mission of their lives has been a shared commitment to see that God is glorified in all things.
Tori dated different boys through college, but she did not have a serious relationship. She was in her last semester of nursing school when a mutual friend arranged a blind date. Knowing that Alan Nunnelee and Tori were both looking for a mate whose love for Christ was first priority, he thought they needed to meet.
Alan’s name was familiar. He had been a year ahead of her at Clinton High School. Tori learned that Alan had lost his eyesight to a disease called keratoconus while he was a student at Mississippi State. A cornea transplant shortly before their first date restored his sight in one eye.
There was an easy and comfortable rapport between them from the start, and it never faltered in all their years together. When Alan’s conversation began with, “Tell me what God has been doing in your life since we last met,” Tori was hooked. Before the end of that first evening, she was sure she was going to marry this man.
Five months later they were engaged, and eight months after that, they married on April 10, 1982.
They settled in Tupelo where Alan went into the insurance business with his father, and the two became active in Calvary Baptist Church. Both embraced service in church and community becoming leaders and volunteers in countless ministries, organizations, and their unique one-on-one ability to reach out to anybody with a need.
Their son Reed has many a story of specific individuals his parents would simply “adopt” because of a need. “Mom is seriously the most giving person I’ve ever known,” he says. “There was the football player they tutored, a mentally challenged man who often came over to eat dinner, the homeless man they fed and sheltered, out-of-town baseball teams who stayed at our house for weekend tournaments. There are literally hundreds of stories about people they helped.”
What a legacy they sowed in the hearts of their three children. There were lessons, but there were examples that often spoke louder than words.
Reed also says it was generosity and selflessness that energized his father to be such an effective public servant. “We often poked fun at Dad because he’d perpetually have something out of place (mustard on his tie, whiskers he forgot to shave, pants tucked into his socks, etc.). Someone pointed out that he was that way because you’d never catch him looking in a mirror—he was always looking out at others. I really think Mom brought that out in him.”
Alan and Tori simply loved people—all people, all colors, all stations in life—and so it was not surprising that he entered politics or that Tori was as good at campaigning as her husband was! It seemed everyone recognized the authenticity of their desire to serve. The word “service” was real in both their lives.
After several terms as a state senator, Alan was elected Representative from Mississippi’s First District to the United States Congress in 2010. It was definitely a new chapter in the Nunnelee family story.
Their three children—Reed, Emily, and Nathan—were grown. Alan was intentional about waiting till the last baby had flown the nest before he pursued a job that would require so much time away from home. The empty nest allowed Tori the freedom to be with Alan whether he was traveling his district or working in Washington. They rented a small 400-square-foot apartment near the Capitol. While Alan immersed himself in his legislative assignments, Tori found a Bible Study attended by many other congressional wives. They enjoyed deep friendships on both sides of the aisle. It was impossible to dislike Alan and Tori.
Despite the unbecoming stories about the D.C. culture, Tori and Alan found many opportunities to connect with people who shared their love for Christ. Those new friends hailed from all over.
It was in Alan’s second term in April 2014 that an EF2 tornado swept through Tupelo uprooting trees, flattening whole neighborhoods, and leaving a mile-wide path of destruction behind. Alan and Tori flew home to Mississippi right away and spent a week away from Congress helping people, assessing needs, and pitching in with relief efforts.
Finally, Alan had to get back for votes, and he reluctantly left Tori behind to help and also to be his eyes and ears right there on the home front. He had not been back in D.C. a full day when his Chief of Staff called Tori to say Alan had been taken to the ER with severe nausea. When she was finally able to talk to her husband, she noticed a slight slur in his speech although he insisted he had not been given any kind of sedative.
Tori’s nursing background set off a mild alarm, and she immediately asked to speak to the physician. The doctor had not noticed, but he agreed to do a few more tests to make sure there was not something neurological going on. There it was—a golf ball sized mass on his brain.
Alan had had no symptoms up to that point. The next step would be to see a neurosurgeon for a more complete diagnosis. Tori and Alan were given several recommendations of top neurosurgeons across the U.S. They wanted a little time to pray about their choice. Right away Alan told Tori, “We don’t know what is going on, but we are going to start by giving thanks.”
“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus,” 1 Thessalonians 5: 18, became their mantra. They even had it inscribed on blue rubber bracelets they gave to everyone who visited explaining that these were their daily reminders. Although they did not have to be thankful FOR this disruptive illness in their lives, they could be thankful for God’s provision IN it.
And so began their own unique project: “Thank You Boards.” Tori bought a big piece of poster board and some colored markers, taped the board to the back of the door in their apartment, and each day they took turns writing down something for which they were thankful. Their entries ran the gambit from individuals who called or wrote notes of encouragement to the supernatural peace of God to hot showers and Diet Cokes. It was something that became an important daily ritual. It eased the anxiety, and it kept their focus on the power of God rather than the schemes of the enemy.
Very soon they made the decision to see a renowned neurosurgeon at MD Anderson. Tori packed their suitcases AND what were, by this time, two thank you boards, and off they went to Houston.
The Surgery and the Aftermath
Tori and Alan arrived in Houston feeling good. Some of the initial shock of the words “brain mass” had worn off. Surely this brilliant neurosurgeon would perform the surgery, tell them definitively what this was, and they would go from there.
They walked into his office expecting one kind of reception and receiving something quite opposite. With his back to them as they entered, he said quite clinically, “I’ve looked at your file. I’ve looked at your cat scan and your MRI. You have a Stage IV Glioblastoma (GBM).”
The conversation continued as Alan asked what that meant and the doctor replied without emotion, “It’s going to kill you.” Tori and Alan were both taken aback. The nurse in Tori was too shaken to even speak, but Alan asked a few more questions as the doctor answered each one bluntly. After being told that even with the surgery he likely had 12-18 months to live, Alan said quietly, “Well, I know my Maker, and I’m ready to meet Him.”
Although they were brutally honest with their three children, Alan told them the poor prognosis would not keep them from praying God’s total healing because, “He is in the healing business.” He also told his son, Reed, on the night before his surgery, “Reed, I taught you how to ride a bike; I taught you how to shave; I taught you how to throw a curve ball. Unfortunately, it looks like I am going to have to teach you what it looks like for a Christ follower to walk through something like this.”
And so came the day of surgery. It was a nine-hour Awake Craniotomy that began very well until Alan suffered a massive stroke about halfway through. When he woke up, he could not speak, could not move, and had lost his vision in his left eye—the one eye that worked. He could not speak clearly although he was trying very hard as he mumbled incoherent syllables.
Tori leaned over him, kissed him, and realized he was saying the Gettysburg Address. She laughed realizing that he was trying to let them all know that regardless of what he had lost in this setback, he could still hear and understand as well as he ever had. His mental faculties were intact.
No patient ever worked more diligently to rehab. He worked nonstop, seven days a week, determined to get back to Congress. Meanwhile, Tori did not leave his side. She plastered their hospital walls with their growing number of Thank You Boards, and they continued to count their blessings daily. It was not a Pollyanna pretense for these two. Tori calls those weeks and months “terrifying” for her, but God was so faithful to give them both daily strength to encourage each other, to praise Him for His presence, and to see the blessings that came in so many ways through family and friends and even the professionals who tended to Alan’s physical needs.
The Goal Realized
At each stage of his five-month rehab, Alan’s speech and mobility improved. He spent weeks in several different rehab centers—all the while keeping up with the Thank You Boards. With Tori as his chief assistant, he worked from home with his office staff in D.C. He carried out all of his responsibilities except that he was not present to vote. In November, almost six months after the surgery and the stroke, he was finally given permission to return to the Capitol.
Few thought he would ever meet the requirements his physicians had given him as criteria for being allowed to get back to Washington. He surprised everyone except himself. He was intensely committed to his task for the people in his district.
Returning was a courageous act, but not something that surprised Tori. Well-meaning friends tried to discourage him because he simply did not look or sound anything like the very popular and capable man who had left Capitol Hill seven months earlier. They thought it would be too difficult and too sad for him. They did not know how incredibly strong was the man’s character as well as the character of his devoted wife.
“We went back in November 2014, and he was welcomed back with open arms,” shares Tori. The House’s Republican Conference holds a meeting at the beginning of each week when Congress is in session. It always begins with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. The word had spread that Alan was back, and he was asked to lead the conference in the pledge that first day back.
The entire chamber gave him a standing ovation when Tori wheeled him in. It was time to recite the pledge, and Alan leaned over to Tori to say he was going to walk to the lectern. He held her arm and made his way to the front but surprised her when he took the microphone and said, “Before I say the Pledge of Allegiance, will you indulge me a few minutes?” Tori looked around the packed room and noticed interns and staff members all across the back wall. There were 240 members of congress seated in their places—among them John Boehner, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan. All eyes were on Alan.
“I know I sound different. I know I look different, but I’m not different in here,” he said pointing to his heart. “I’m the same Alan. When I was a little boy I asked Jesus into my heart, and that has made the great difference in my life. I have learned through this process to give thanks in all things. Tori and I are thankful for so many things.” He named a few and then continued, “I’m not thankful for a brain tumor. I’m not thankful I had a stroke that I had to recover from. Tori and I are not thankful for the stroke but we are thankful in it. I consider it a joy if I can walk this trial and set a light ahead for somebody else.”
There were no dry eyes in the House Chamber that morning. As Tori helped Alan back to their seats, she again took in the sight of the sea of people, all visibly moved by Alan’s words. Her mother’s heart thought first about all of those young interns and staffers from all over the country who were listening to her husband’s unashamed testimony about his faith. She thanked God immediately for the seeds that had been planted.
She realized, too, that Alan knew his time was short. He knew, as she knew a few months later, they had not been sent to Washington to have a long legislative career or even to cast a vote on this or that. They were there to be missionaries and to walk a walk of faith, to shine a light, and to give thanks in all things.
Then and Now
Alan lost his battle with cancer just three months later. Thirty-seven House Members and several spouses, some who had been in Tori’s Bible Study, packed two planes and flew to Tupelo for Alan’s farewell. Tori’s request to those who spoke was that even though there would be some very wonderful things said about her husband, she wanted everything to point back to Christ. If there is one supreme message she and Alan wanted to characterize their lives it was that every good thing in both of them was because Jesus was alive and well in their hearts.
Reed Nunnelee delivered his father’s eulogy, and he told a side of Alan that his fellow congressmen had not seen first hand. He talked about the father that he had been, the love he had constantly lavished on him and on his brother and sister, but in every family story he shared, the fact of his relationship with His Jesus shone through.
One of Tori’s D.C. friends who was in the entourage that day later told her that there was much chatter about work on the trip down, but on the return trip, there was complete silence all the way from Tupelo to Andrews Air Force Base. There were no dry eyes, but there seemed to be a lot of soul searching. When the plane landed, Speaker Boehner asked the pilot for the microphone so that he could address his cohorts. He stood there and said, “I’ve never felt so insignificant in all my life.”
The take away was clearly that Alan and Tori had gone to D.C. and done exactly what God intended them to do in their mission. God’s purpose was never about government. As usual, his plans are higher than ours.
Tori stays in touch with several of her old D.C. friends. She even hears from time to time from some of those interns who were on the floor of the chamber the day Alan led the pledge.
She is the busy grandmother of six—well, almost six—the sixth to be born in ???. She lives in their beloved Tupelo, is still active in Calvary Baptist, and does a great deal of volunteer work with New Beginnings, a national and international Christian adoption ministry.
Oh yes. She still claims 1 Thessalonians 5:18 as a daily priority in her life. Imagine that.