If anyone deserves a chance to rest and relax in a place that feels like home, it’s Thomas Kerr. The 95-year-old survived the Great Depression, World War II, a career on Redstone Arsenal and several years as a college-level math teacher. In fact, if you sit with him long enough, he will quiz you on differential equations. Because even after all these years, his mind is still as sharp as it ever was.
Born in 1923 in East Alabama, Thomas was 6 when the Great Depression hit. While he never went hungry — one of the perks of being raised on a farm — he did go a year without school because the government couldn’t afford to pay the teachers.
“We had a depression in 1929,” Thomas remembered. “They closed the banks, took all your money in the bank, and that was it. You didn’t have any money. … Nobody had any money. … I learned more (then), when I was 6 to 7 to 8, than I learned in college.”
There were four boys and four girls in Thomas’ family, and they all grew up understanding the ins and outs of farm life. It was tough, and they grew up fast, but it made them strong.
“We were 30 or 40 years old by the time we were 15-years-old,” Thomas said.
Between his life on the farm and his service in the military, Thomas grew into one of those people who never stops striving for greatness — even at 95, he exercises two hours a day and records everything he does to make sure he’s not slacking off.
But time does take its toll.
And when the time came for Thomas to move into assisted living, he chose The Cottages for their cozy feel and family environment. Assisted living for Thomas doesn’t mean slowing down, though.
“I’m busy all the time,” he said.
Sighted Sub, Sank Same
When Thomas was 17, he enlisted in the Navy. His brother went to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and when Thomas went to visit him, he decided to join as well. The military would pay for his college, but he had to study aviation and then serve in the Navy.
Thomas ended up going to four colleges — University of Oklahoma, University of Chicago, Penn State and the University of Virginia — while enlisted as petty officer.
Petty officers each have a particular skill, and Thomas was responsible for fixing airplanes — everything from the engine, hydraulics, electrical work to the radio. He sat behind the pilot on flights and took notes on everything about the flight to ensure everything was working properly.
“It was work,” Thomas said. “It was work, but I tell you what … you should begin when you’re about 5 years old to see the things that you like to do, and the things that you like to do determine your talent. … If you don’t find your talent, you get into trouble. … If you find your talent, that’s what you want to do, and you do it.”
Thomas’ talent rested in his ability to work on planes at the command center in Norfolk, Virginia, during World War II. At the time, Norfolk served at the base of operations for all the Naval activities from Newfoundland to Brazil.
“In 19 and 44, the Germans had dominated that whole Atlantic fleet, and there were 240-and-some-odd tankers sank in the Gulf of Mexico by German subs,” Thomas said.
He said things weren’t looking good for the Allies on this side of the ocean until one Navy pilot went out and used sonar to detect a very small periscope sticking up out of the water. It was a German submarine, and he was able to sink it. The pilot then radioed the command center, saying, “Sighted sub, sank same,” words that would become the rallying cry for Navy pilots everywhere.
“(That pilot) affected everybody,” Thomas said. “You wanted to do something, and you asked, ‘What it is it I can do?’ ”
That was their job — to find the German submarines and sink them. Thanks to Thomas and the other servicemen working on the east coast, they were successful and helped turn the tide of World War II in our favor.
Later in the war, Thomas was deployed to one of the most famous battles in history. On June 6, 1944, the American and British forces invaded Normandy, France, in what is now known as the D-Day invasion. Thomas was there, serving on a Navy cruiser, a ship designed to hold multiple guns and airplanes.
“I rode in one of those (planes) while the ship itself was stationed about five miles from the shore. … It had 16-inch guns, and that ship was assigned to tear up a building,” Thomas said. “It was full of German artillery and all kinds of fighting stuff. It took us two weeks to tear that down. What we did was, we flew in and took pictures of where the shell had hit and the damage it did, and we radioed that back to the ship so they could reload and re-aim at it. That was my first assignment.”
In 1942, he got married. While Thomas was flying in planes at Normandy, his wife’s twin brother was fighting on the beach. Only Thomas would return home from that battle, though. Two weeks later, her other brother died in battle at Milan, Italy.
“She never got over that, bless her heart,” Thomas said.
Thomas related one serendipitous story from the war. When he was on the ship off the coast of Normandy, Germans were shooting straight at them. One of the sailors got so scared he dropped his gun and ran inside to take cover, where a metal pan fell and cracked his skull open. Thomas was tasked with flying with him to a military doctor, which he did, but he didn’t pay much attention to the doctor at the time. After all, they were in the middle of battle, and Thomas had to get back to the front line.
Years later, after Thomas moved to Huntsville, he took his daughter to a doctor. When he walked in, the doctor said, “I know you.” Thomas still didn’t recognize him.
“You brought me a damaged guy,” the doctor said. It turned out to be the same doctor who treated the wounded soldier during the war.
Slide Rule Rockets
In 1950, Thomas was stationed in Huntsville, working in the military’s aero-ballistics laboratory, figuring out how to calculate the trajectory of the new Redstone missile.
The technology was a lot different back then, though. Thomas remembers walking into work the first day and having the boss come in with a 12-foot slide rule used for determining where the missile would land.
It was big news when they got a Marchant calculator and even bigger news when they got a computer — an IBM that took more than 30 hours to calculate a single trajectory. And when they first got a computer that could calculate things in less than three minutes, they thought it was broken because it was working so fast.
In 1963, a three-star general presented Thomas with a commendation for his work on the Redstone missile, something Thomas notes as one of the highlights of his career.
After retiring from his work on the Arsenal, Thomas taught math at Athens State University and UAH.
Life at The Cottages
The Cottages are designed to have a homey feel, a place where men and women can relax or socialize — depending on their mood. Residents who have served in the military, like Thomas, can talk about their time in the service, or they can just enjoy a fun dinner while Thomas explains calculus to them.
Thomas has an assortment of exercise equipment in his room to keep his muscles toned. He also spent the past year tracing his daughter’s ancestry. Then, he made 103 videos for her, each consisting of five, 20-minute segments talking about his life and experiences.
Thomas is not the only veteran living at The Cottages. Melvin Trevey, 97, is a man of few words, but that doesn’t stop him from enjoying movies and popcorn in the common areas of The Cottages. He uses a walker, but he’s still a flashy man, with an Army medal around his neck and a one-carat diamond earring in his ear.
“It’s real nice,” Melvin said about The Cottages. “We have fun and talk to each other, just general stuff.”
Whether you’re a veteran or not, The Cottages offers a different approach to assisted living. You can find out more by checking out their website or calling (256) 361-0608.
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