From “Down an Indian Trail in 1849” by Mary K. Rowlands

Last month, as you may recall, I invited you along on a journey: a journey of discovery into some of my family history. I’ve learned a lot in one month..but have a lot more to learn. I’ve exchanged LinkedIn messages with LeRone Branch, the Eagle Scout turned Tax Accountant, who helped develop the memorial to my great-great-grandparents Jan and Aagje (Vander Sijde) Ton. I’ve emailed several times with Paul Ton of Michigan, descended from Jan’s brother, Harmen, and I’ve read two and a half books that mention Jan and others in the Ton family. 

Correcting the Record

Part of what I have learned is that I had some of my facts wrong in my post last month. In that post, I mentioned Jan and Aagje immigrated to the U.S from Holland (Netherlands) in the 1840s with eight of their nine children. That is not correct. As is often the case with old records, it is easy to get confused when children carry the same name as one of their parents. Many times records do not include suffixes such as Jr. or Sr. or even II and III. 

My great-great-grandfather, Jan, was 23 years old and single when he immigrated to the U.S. aboard the ship, “Massachusetts of Boston”, sailing from Le Havre, France in April of 1849. Jan was the son of Jan and Peterje (Stam) Ton, my great-great-great-grandparents. THEY had nine children. It was eight of their nine children who, over time, immigrated to the U.S. So, you can see how confusing that can get! The “Massachusetts of Boston” carried two Tons across the Atlantic, Jan and his married sister, Jannetje (Ton) Eenigenburg. Many of the families settled south of Chicago near Lake Calumet. Jan and eight other immigrants are considered the founding fathers of what is now Roseland, Illinois. 

It appears from the records I can find there might have been some shenanigans going on onboard the ship. Jan and Aagje’s first son, Jan Jr. was born in February of 1850. Jan and Aagje would marry in 1853 and raise 14 children to adulthood.

The Underground Railroad

I am certain to have many more stories to tell as I learn more, but, I do want to relate a story that directly connects Jan and Aagje to the Under Ground Rail Road. The story is found in the 1923 book “The Wonder of the Dunes” by George A. Brennan. You see, what is now Indiana Dunes National Park was along traveled by many freedom seekers on their way from Chicago to Detroit and on into Canada. The Hollanders settlement new Lake Calumet was leading station along that portion of the underground railroad. 

This particular story was retold many times over the years by Cornelius Kuyper, a dear friend of my great-great-grandfather’s and the town constable. Mr. Brennan records the story in his book. In his capacity as the constable, Kuyper was often called upon to assist in capturing run-away freedom seekers. He would attack each request with such zeal and effort, he would receive praise from slave owners and sheriffs alike…though…he never succeeded in capturing any freedom seekers.  

A Story to Tell

As Kuyper tells the story, one day he was visited by a slave owner from Kentucky, a sheriff deputy from Chicago and a posse. They were pursuing three freedom seekers, each with a $3,000 price on their heads. As was his norm, Kuyper searched high and low for the runaways, even taking the posse as far as the Illinois-Indiana state line. Once again, he came up empty-handed. 

When they returned to Kuyper’s home, his wife Maartje prepared and served them a meal before they headed back to Chicago. After they were safely on their way, Kuyper headed into his cellar, opened a trap door, and summoned one the freedom seekers who he had hidden away. He then went to the barn and moved part of an immense stack of hay, the other two freedom seekers emerged. He fed them, had them climb in his wagon covered them with cobs of corn, and took them to the home of Jan Ton. Jan hitched up his wagon, transferred the precious cargo, and headed out toward Indiana. Near the town of Hohman Bridge (today’s Hammond, Indiana), the cargo was transferred to another wagon. The freedom seekers were well on their way to Canada. 

One can only imagine the countless times these men and women provided this service to others on their journey! 

As I learn more, we will continue on this journey together. Until next time! 


A Journey - Ton FamilyIn the twelve years, I’ve been writing this blog I’ve taken you on many journeys. This time it’s different. This time I don’t know where we are going. Join me as I explore. Together, we will explore the past, and maybe, just maybe, there will be some lessons for us today and in the future in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and others. 

Our journey begins just a few short weeks ago. In the midst of the civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a window to the past opened. Those of you who know me personally, know I love exploring the past. Carmen and I have followed the Lewis and Clark Trail from its beginnings in Monticello, Virginia, to the shores of the Pacific Coast near Astoria, Oregon, and back to St. Louis. 

Our love for that epic story unlocked our love for our family’s story. We have stood in the tiny abandoned farmhouse where my grandmother was born near Randolph, Nebraska. We have stood near countless graves of our ancestors. For us, history goes beyond the names and dates, it’s about people and their stories. What did they do and why? What were they thinking? What were they feeling? 

We have read pages and pages of journals to uncover the stories behind the names and dates. That is why my sister’s note surprised me. Her note included a link to an article she had stumbled across, a link that takes our exploration back further than a few short weeks ago. It uncovers a story. A story that involves a professor, an eagle scout, a retired Chicago police officer, and that is just going back 10 years. The story takes us back 171 years. It takes us back to 1849. It takes us to the story of Jan and Aagje Ton, my great, great grandparents. 

Life Magazine!

Despite all the journals, despite all the graveside visits, what I knew about Jan and Aagje was from a 1945 issue of Life Magazine. That issue ran the story of the fiftieth Ton family reunion held in West Pullman Park on the South Side of Chicago. Over 500 Tons were in attendance. Jan and Aagje were immigrants from De Zaan, Holland. They and eight of their nine children came to the U.S. in the 1840s to flee persecution and high taxes. 

Cool story, right? Life Magazine! As an aside, the cover of that issue was of one Jimmy Stewart, the actor, returning home after the war. The article even had a picture of the old farmhouse on the north side of the Little Calumet River.  A lifetime of trips to and through Chicago not once were we inspired to track down the story, to visit the graves, or to find the location of the farm. The Life Magazine article is framed and hanging on the stairs in our home. I pass it a dozen times a day. 

Surprising news!

And then I received the link from my sister. What I learned floored me, blew me away. Jan and Aagje did more than farm on the banks of the Little Calumet River. You see, their farm was a stop along what is now known as the Underground Railroad. Freedom seekers would arrive at the farm on foot, in wagons (hidden under hay or sacks of corn), and sometimes by train. All of them traveling hundreds of miles to find their freedom. Jan would assist by taking them by wagon halfway across Indiana toward Detroit and the Canadian border. 

I learned the farm was located at what is today “Chicago’s Finest Marina”. It is is a historically black-owned marina. Ronald Gaines, a retired Chicago police officer now owns the marina. 

I learned there is a memorial to honor my great, great grandparents near the church they helped found when they immigrated to the area. The memorial was an Eagle Scout project of LeRone Branch. LeRone is now a tax accountant for Deloitte. 

Where do we go from here?

I’m hungry to learn more. My curiosity is aroused. Why didn’t we know? How was the story lost to our branch of the family? There isn’t anyone left to ask. My grandparents never spoke of it that any of us remember. My grandfather died in the mid-60s. My grandmother was fiercely proud of being a Ton. Though she married into the family, she was first and foremost a Ton. In all her journals, not one word of this appears. In the countless stories, she told in the years before her death, not even a whisper. I suppose the easy answer is she didn’t know. My grandfather was born nine years after Jan died. He never knew his grandfather. It’s true my branch of the Ton family tree scattered throughout the country in the early to mid-1900s. Perhaps that explains it. 

Perhaps the answer is darker. 

Come with me on this journey. As I learn more, you will learn more. 

As faithful readers know, my father recently passed away. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but in one final breath, I became the patriarch of the Ton family (going back at least four generations). It is now my responsibility to pass on the stories, to pass on the traditions, to respect the past and those who have come before. 

One of the joys of the last few years has been taking my grandsons, Braxton and Jordan, to visit my dad, Popper (or great-Popper) – to see his face light up when those little guys would bound into his room, show him their new games, or demonstrate their latest artwork. Dozens of images come to mind…Braxton pushing my dad in his wheelchair on the last Thanksgiving he would visit our house, or crawling onto his bed to play games with him when Dad could no longer get up. Jordan telling a story so funny both of them were laughing and giggling, or Dad wearing Jordan’s Easter hat to the delight of the little red-head. 

Two months almost to the day of dad’s passing, we welcomed Jasper Bryant Ton into the world. The second son of my second son. What an amazing joy to hold that little life in my arms, to look into his eyes. I could not help but think of my dad. He did not have a chance to meet Jasper, but I know he would adore him. My heart was overflowing with love. 

Braxton’s and Jordan’s memories of their time with my dad will fade, Jasper has no memories to fade.  Yes, there are pictures, hundreds of pictures, but it will be the stories that provide the connection. I want them to know of his laugh, his smile, his compassion, his goofy sense of humor. Most of all, I want them to know of his love, love for my mom, love for his family, and love for his fellow man and woman. 

I treasure the moments I have with my kids and my grandkids. Even on days when I am preoccupied with work, or too tired and crabby to be patient, or when there thousands of tasks that don’t get done. I celebrate my role as patriarch – to tell stories of Mary Ellen and Gene, Lawrence and Sara, Hallie and Mary and the generations who came before. 

Welcome to the world, Jasper Bryant Ton. You have been born into a family that loves you dearly. You have been born into a family with an amazing story. I can’t wait to share it all with you. 


The story it could tell

“Once upon a time then [sic] was Braxton then he save [sic] his mom from the tower and they were happy ever after the end.”

The typewriter in my office was manufactured in 1927. It belonged to my mother’s mother and was purchased in the middle of the Great Depression when she was a teacher of teachers at a Normal School in Milwaukee. 

Oh, if that Underwood could talk, the story it would tell! It sat for years in her home on Ellen Street. Not only was it used for coursework, but it was also used to write letters long since gone…letters to friends, letters to family, letters that told stories. Stories of her young and growing family – their births, their graduations, their marriages. Stories of pain at the death of a child days after her birth. 

Through the generations

Her family grew. Her seven children began to have children of their own. As they moved away, her letters would keep them connected to home. 

There would have been a story of sons-in-law who went off to fight in World War II and grandkids went to Korea and Vietnam. She would have written:

  • of events back home to keep them all connected
  • of homecomings and celebrations
  • with pride. 

One of her daughters would become a preacher’s wife…and author. Was her writing inspired by typing on the old Underwood? The question remains unanswered…asked too late. The stories continued. 

As the years took their toll, my mother’s mother could no longer type. The old keys took too much effort from the old woman she had become. The Underwood was given to one of the sisters. Over time, it found its way to the garage where it sat silent – silent for years. 

The story of a new home

The typewriter found its way to my home, a gift from my cousin to celebrate my writings and the publication of my first book. For Christmas, my wife had it refurbished. Good as new! Its clacking keys and ringing bell have become a thing of fascination for my grandsons when they “visit” my office next to their playroom. With my gentle coaxings of “be gentle” and “one key at a time,” they learned to type their names…and then…

Braxton who is my firstborn’s firstborn, my mother’s first grandchild’s child, came to play. He, now seven, has been diagnosed with autism at two, non-verbal until almost five. Braxton, the sweetest little boy you will ever want to meet.

As he is wont to do, he headed upstairs to the playroom, barely giving his daddy a goodbye. I followed, but instead of the playroom, he turned into my office and began to type. “Braxton”. He then looked up at me, his expression one of someone following an idea in their head…then he smiled…and typed, pausing occasionally for help with the next letter. 

“Once upon a time then [sic] was Braxton then he save [sic] his mom from the tower and they were happy ever after the end”

The stories continue…

This eulogy was delivered at First Baptist Church on January 11, 2020, and at Hoosier Village Chapel on January 13, 2020, in honor of my daddy, coach, dad, popper, pop, Gene Ton. If you are interested in watching a video of the entire service, you can find it here: L. Eugene Ton. (Note: the first 30 seconds are a black screen with the brass quintet playing. The video then fades in.)


My heart hurts. Our hearts hurt. 

Despite the pain, we want to celebrate. Celebrate an amazing life and a truly incredible man. 

Before I get to that, I want to let you in on a little secret. Dad wasn’t perfect. I can remember as clear as day. He and I were repairing the gutters on our home in Evansville (you see, someone’s basketball kept crashing into them, must have Joel’s, mine always swished through the hoop). Anyway, there we were, dad up on the ladder and me holding it steady. When it happened. With a mighty swing of the hammer, expecting to hear the metal on metal clang of the hammer, I heard instead, metal on thumb. Yes, that might blow smashed his thumb. Time seemed to slow down. I could see it building up. His face growing red. I thought, here it is, I am finally going to hear my dad say “damn”…or worse. His face now covered in a grimace. Here it came…”fffffffiddlesticks!” Yep, Fiddlesticks. That was our dad. 

I am sure all the family could regale you with other stories of dad, probably some that actually show some imperfections. He truly was special. We are so happy to celebrate him with you. We shared him with all of you for most of his life. I’d like to do something a bit unusual. I always loved it when dad would do something unusual in his sermons. One of the things he did that always caught my attention, was when he would come out from behind the pulpit and step down to be with the congregation. Sometimes he would become a character in his sermon: Peter; James; Paul. Other times he would just talk with us. I’ll tell you, for a junior and senior high kid, it really made me sit up and pay attention. Heck, it made the whole congregation sit up and pay attention to what he was saying. 

No, I’m not going to be one of the disciples today, THAT would be a bit of a stretch. But, I am going to involve all of you for a moment. 

In honor of dad, I’d like you to stand if dad officiated your wedding (some of us had the honor of him doing that for us more than once). Now, stay standing. 

If dad officiated one of your children’s weddings, please stand. 

How about baptism? If he baptized you, please stand. 

Please stand if he officiated a funeral for a loved one or family member. 

How many here were the benefit of his wise counsel over the years, you don’t have to tell us why, your secret is safe. Please stand. 

How many here felt the warmth of his smile, the comfort of his greeting, the guidance of his leadership? 

If you are not standing by now, please stand. Please join me in thanking him, by repeating after me. “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord”. {repeat} 

Thank you, you can be seated. 

We all experienced dad in different ways. Even those who he and mom raised experienced him differently. 

For me, first, there was daddy, playing in the yards of the parsonages in Lafayette and Lebanon. Pushing me in the swing. Teaching me to ride a bike without training wheels in the alley. Building Pinewood Derby cars for the annual Cub Scout tradition. His annual tradition for Memorial Day: take his small transistor radio out to the garage, tune in the Indy 500 and wash and wax his car. It was an exciting day when I finally got to help! We learned quickly that daddy was different than most. Daddy was Reverend Ton, unlike most kids not only did we live next door to his “office”, but we went there multiple times a week. People treated him differently, people treated us differently. What I remember most about daddy was his smile. 

Next came Coach…Little League Baseball…Flag football, teaching me to shoot a layup on the goal behind the garage. He was there with patience and gentle coaching (sometimes not so gentle coaching). This is where dementia may have been a bit of a blessing. To hear him tell it today, I was an all-star catcher in Little League. Uh, dad, You coached the all-star team because our team won first place. I said the Little League pledge for the Allstar game because I wasn’t didn’t make the team. How he became my Little League coach is a microcosm of the type of man he was, the type of father he was. After watching a couple of my team’s practices and observing the way the coach treated us; yelling, screaming, cursing. Dad tried to coach the coach on a better approach. Professionally, not in front of the kids, in private. The guy quit. Rather than going to the league to find another coach, dad stepped up and became a coach. What I remember most about the coach was his patience. 

By the time we were in Evansville he was just “dad”. Evansville was much bigger than Lebanon. Dad was learning how to lead an urban church, and I was learning about high school. Dad was still “Reverend Ton”…I can remember my mom and dad giving a tour of the parsonage to a group of “old ladies” from the church (they were probably 60!). As they passed my brother’s room, she remarked, “Oh and this must be Reverend Ton’s room.” Uh, no! He slept down the hall with my mother. There were four of us for Pete’s sake, as far as I know, there has only been one immaculate conception. Despite the fact that he was Reverend Ton to most, to me he was dad. He was the guy I could go to for anything. He was the guy that would do anything for us. During this time, he taught me the game of golf. Dad loved golf. Of all the sports, golf was king. At first, I got to tag along with the foursome, take a few swings here and there. Later, just the two of us would go. Inevitably, they would pair us up with another twosome. I noticed dad always introduced himself as “Gene”. Not Reverend Ton. When I asked him about it, his answer was simple, “if I introduce myself as Reverend, they will act differently because I am a pastor. They may not enjoy themselves as much, so here I am “just Gene”. When I was a freshman in college, and homesick…it was him I called. It was him who provided the reassurance I needed to hear, not only in his words but in the sound of his voice through the phone. What I remember most about dad was his quiet leadership. 

Along about 1978, he became grandpa…Popper as my kids and my sister’s kids called him. Dad would have been in his late 50’s and into his 60’s. The great Reverend Doctor, the leader of leaders, the pastor of pastors became putty in the hands of those little creatures. He would laugh, and joke and smile ear to ear. Popper loved Christmas, he and Mimi both did. But if Mimi was the queen of Christmas, dad was the king of Easter. He would spend hours hiding eggs in the yard. So many eggs, he had to have a map in case the five grandkids couldn’t find them all. And, then. And then, there was the Easter play. A silly little play about Captain Dan the Fried Egg Man. We all had a role. Even the littlest ones could do sound effects. But it was popper, it was dad, who took it up a notch. Creating costumes for his characters, using different funny voices as he played different roles. He may not have been a hit on Broadway, but he was a hit with the little ones! What I remember most about Popper was his humor. 

The last few years, he became “Pop”. I’m not sure if that was a shortened version of “Popper”, the name the grandkids call him, or sign of the change in our relationship. The parent became the child, and the child became the parent. It has been an honor to be on this journey with him, whether we were going toe-to-toe: “Quit treating me like a child!” “You quit acting like one!” Gee, where have I heard THAT before; or taking in an Indians game, telling the same stories, laughing at the same jokes game after game, year after year; or sitting quietly in his room at Hoosier Village just “being”. A few years ago, when I was contemplating a career move, the decision to leave Goodwill, a job I loved, a mission I loved and people I loved…I went to Pop. You see, he was still in there. I went to him for guidance. He asked questions, he told stories, he answered my questions about his own career and the choices he had made to leave one church for another or to leave the pulpit and take an executive minister role for the denomination.  True to form…he never gave me the answer. What I remember most about pop was his wisdom. 

We have all experienced dad in different ways…but always the same: funny, caring, compassionate, empathetic, and loving…pastoral…ministering us all…even at the end. 

Join me once again. “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord”. {repeat}

Well done good and faithful father. Enter into the joy of your Lord.

A few years ago I was inspired to write a fairy tale of sorts – a fairy tale about my dad’s progressing disease and the need to move him to the next stage of care. Today, I write the concluding chapter of the Trilogy of Serendipity. 

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, lived a King, his three Princes and his one Princess, and their wonderful spouses and families. Much has changed since our fairy tale began. Much has changed since our last visit to the land of Serendip almost two years ago. You see, the King had moved once again. He had to leave the Village of Hickory to reside in the Centre of Soapberry. It is there in the Centre of Soapberry where our story begins anew. 

A call went out to the Prince and Princess of Whitetail. The King, whose health had been slowly declining, was in distress. They rushed to the King’s Chambers and found him barely able to speak but resting comfortably. Barely returning to the Forest of Whitetail, they were once again summoned to his chambers. It was time. The nursing saint declared the King’s body was too frail. It was time to think only of his comfort. 

The Prince sent messengers to the Prince of Raymond, the Prince of the Western Lands and the Princess of the Green Lakes. Should they be able to travel and should they desire, they should set forth for the Centre of Soapberry. Alas, the Princess’ health would not allow her to make such a journey. The Princes joined the Prince and Princess of Whitetail. Sir Larry of Sayre arrived to join them by the King’s bedside. 

Several days passed. They were days filled with retelling of stories, sharing laughter and sharing tears and providing comfort to the King. The nursing saint was joined by a number of nursing saints, all of them the most beautiful, caring souls the Lord hath created. The time was drawing nigh. 

The Chaplain of the Castle arrived, recited the Prayer of the Lord, and the King breathed his last. The King is dead…long live the King. Remember him in your hearts.

On December 16, 2019, The Reverend Doctor L. Eugene Ton passed away. He will be missed by his family, his friends and the congregations of the churches he served. 

For those readers who do not know this, Dad suffered from a rare form of dementia: Behavioral Variant Frontotemporal Dementia or bvFTD. It is considered rare in that it occurs far less often than Alzheimer’s. It is also rare in males, and even rarer for someone as old as Pop was when we first started seeing signs. I’ve written several posts over the years about the journey we have all been on with Dad since Mom passed in 2013.  I will be writing more in the future – of this I have no doubt. 

First, the other two stories in the Serendip trilogy:

Serendipity – A Fairy Tale

The Land of Serendip Revisited

And then all the others. Some relate to lessons learned from my dad, while others are specific to this journey with dementia. 

Dad Paddles the Roosevelt River

Shadows of Days Gone By

Are Those Smiles Identical or What?

Love is…

The end of a very long week

The Sprinkler Head

Serendipity – A Fairy Tale

Love is Thicker than Blood

The Window – A Divine Coincidence

The Land of Serendip Revisited

Sounds of Silence

Just Gene

What is YOUR Vision for the Future?

Just Gene - Rivers of ThoughtFor some, the title of this post will conjure up images of Sean Hayes’ character on the first iteration of Will and Grace, Jack McFarland, throwing both his hands up, palms forward to face-box himself and exclaiming, “Just Jack”. While that moment became iconic in the annals of television, I’d like to share a different moment…a moment I had recently with my dad, Gene. No, face-box, “Just Gene”.

Many of you know, my dad is suffering from a somewhat rare form of dementia: behavioral-variant Frontotemporal Dementia or bvFTD. This evil disease, although in the same family as Alzheimer’s, doesn’t manifest itself in the same way. Dad still recognizes everyone, can recall the minutest detail of something that happened 30 years ago, or 30 minutes ago, and, other than having an 88 year-old body, is in decent physical health. I sometimes describe him as a person with cognitive abilities of a 5 year-old, with the memories of 88 years.

One of the ways in which this disease manifests itself is in the form of delusions. The formal definition according to is “an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder.” For dad, this means he experiences things around him that are not real, but he firmly believes they are. For example, my mom comes to visit him quite often. Mom passed away five years ago…and he knows this, yet she visited, or they took a trip, or even played golf together. Like a “real memory” he can describe these events in great detail and these details rarely change as he retells the story time and time again.

When he first started experiencing delusions, I would calmly and matter of factly explain to him that they are not real, that he really didn’t go to Chicago last week, or that his ceiling light did not move three feet across the room. As this delusions grew longer, more involved, and more intertwined with reality, his doctors advised us to just go along with the story. Unless he is frightened, endangering himself or others, just go along.

We have had many visits these past few months where he is in midst of a delusion and incorporates us in. On one such visit, he was clearly leading a church meeting. There were twenty people in his room. When we arrived, he interrupted the meeting to introduce us to the group, told us he would be wrapping the meeting up shortly, and then we could visit. As you probably deduced, the room was empty save for me, my wife Carmen, our grandson Jordan, and, of course, dad.

All of which brings us to my story of “Just Gene”. I stopped in to visit with dad a few days ago. When I entered his room, I found him like we find him quite often. Laying on his bed, fully clothed (including shoes), resting. It was about 5:30 in the evening and he had just returned from dinner down the hall. I pulled up his walker, which has a seat as a part of it, and sat down next to the bed for our visit. We talked about his day, we talked about his meal, we talked about his tv not working (uh, I turned the cable box on and wha-la it worked). I changed his clocks, it being the Monday after the fall time change. I crawled on the floor and picked up his phone, knocked there when he had tried to get up at some point in the last few days. We talked about my upcoming trip to LA, we talked about Carmen not feeling well, we talked about little Jordan and Braxton.

“So, Dad, what else have you been doing? Have you been down to activity time?”

“No, I’ve been way too busy.”

“Busy, doing what?”

“Well, I don’t know how these groups find me, but I keep getting asked by these church groups to help them with this problem or that problem. Groups from Chicago, from St. Louis, from all over. I don’t know how they even know who I am.”

“Well, dad, of course they know you. You lead the baptist churches here in Indiana for years. You were a very well respected expert on congregations and church management. Of course, they want insights from the Reverend Doctor.”

“I suppose you are right. But, this last one did not go well.”

“What do you mean?”, I asked.

“They just weren’t getting it. I could not get them to understand. I finally had to give up. I needed to get back here and they just wouldn’t listen.”

“I suppose that would be frustrating, but you had to run into that many times during your career, right?”

“Not often, but sometimes. One of my congregations was especially difficult. It always hurt deeply when I saw them going in the wrong direction, for the wrong reasons. We had a couple of churches leave the Association. They felt that was what was best for them.”

“I have always been proud of being the son of Reverend Ton. I loved to listen to you preach. I loved it when you got into character and acted like you were one of the Apostles, that always got my attention,” I told him. 

“Yes, sometimes you have do something a bit different to get your point across. You just can’t stand up there behind the pulpit week after week. But, you know, here I am not Reverend Ton. Most don’t even know or care. Here I’m just Gene. And, I kind of like that.”

There you have it. Just Gene. And that feels good to him.

I have to admit, it is something I rarely have thought about…the sacrifices. The sacrifices he, and countless others, had to make to follow their calling. The long hours of running the business of a church during the day, rushing home for dinner, only to have to go back to oversee the various meetings of the church at night. The need to always be “on”. Always “special”.

Just Gene.

Dad spoke of missing so much of our lives as kids, instead, having to rely on mom as the primary parent because she was home…and he was not. It occurred to me, even something as simple as visiting someone’s home for dinner, and always being called upon to say the blessing, because, after all, he WAS the Reverend.

Just Gene.

I remembered the times he and I would go to play golf. Invariably, as a twosome, the course would pair us up with another twosome to complete a foursome and off we would go. Dad always introduced himself as Gene. Just Gene. Not Gene Ton, not Reverend Ton, just Gene. After one such round in which we had been paired with a particularly “rowdy” gent, who liked to swear and tell off-color jokes, I asked him why he didn’t tell him who he was or what he did for a living. “Well, because it would make him uncomfortable and he would change the way he was acting. He was here to relax, play golf and blow off steam.”

I have no doubt, knowing my dad, he would do it for the other person. But, the realization was dawning on me, that maybe, just maybe, he was giving himself a break from being the Reverend Doctor Ton. Maybe in some deep recesses of his brain, he needed to be “Just Gene” occasionally. Maybe that is part of the battle going on within his mind today. As the disease takes over more and more of his brain, it is a tug of war between the calling of his lifetime…to lead, to counsel, to challenge, to comfort…and his desire to be…Just Gene.


This is a story of my friend Ben. I had the honor of working with Ben at Goodwill for about four years, give or take. He was about my sons’ age. Ben is a squirrely sort of dude. Think typical IT nerd, complete with glasses (no, they weren’t taped up), a book worm. Born to study, born to learn. Quirky sense of humor. Sometimes exposing itself at the wrong time, leading some to think him a bit socially awkward.

Whenever you needed something, Ben was there. Willing to pitch in and help. Many of you have heard of my “Creek Days”, those days once a year when I enlist as many friends as I can to help me remove trees from the creek behind my house. It is wet, muddy, backbreaking work. Ben was always the first one to volunteer each year, wearing a PS2 cable as a belt (“hey, I didn’t want to ruin a good belt!”). I told you…a bit quirky. Only two people have ever come to Creek Day more than once. In the five years of conducting Creek Days, Ben only missed once.

Over the years, Ben would pop into my office to talk. We shared many stories, stories of family, of friends, of life and music. 

I loved Ben’s story about meeting his wife Taleigha. He had two tickets to the Foo Fighters and no one to go with, so he posted on Craig’s list. Taleigha answered. They had moved in together a few months later, and were married a soon after. I had the pleasure of meeting Taleigha a couple of times when she visited Ben at the office. She had the brightest most beautiful smile, especially when she talked of Ben. Theirs was a beautiful love story. But with a dark side. Taleigha had cancer…brain cancer. I have never seen two people fight so hard. Fight against the disease, fight against the healthcare system, fight against all the odds.

They lost that fight and Taleigha passed away on June 17, 2018.

A few weeks after she passed, family and friends were gathered to remember her. It was the first time I had seen Ben since her passing. There he was, looking awkward in his suit, greeting everyone that attended. I hugged him, kissed him on the cheek, and barely croaked out the words “Bennie, I’m sorry, there are no words” between my own tears. How he continued to hold it together I will never know…shock maybe.

The service was a beautiful tribute to Taleigha. Her family and friends remembering her through their words and music. The pastor, who had known Taleigha since she moved to the area, and who had married them eight short years ago, spoke of Taleigha and her love of music and animals and people. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. And then…and then…and then Ben made his way to the pulpit. There are no words to describe the strength, resolve, and tenderness as he read his words…their love story…pausing only once or twice to maintain his composure. I cannot do it justice, so instead, I leave you with Ben’s own words.

“Almost two weeks from today, July 27th, will mark 10 years to the day that I met Taleigha Lugenia Victoria Elizabeth Clayton, now Frederick. We bonded quickly, that day, over a shared love of science fiction — particularly the X-Files — and through the hope that had been reignited in our hearts by a young senator from Illinois. We hadn’t planned for more than lunch, but decided to see the brand new X-Files movie released two days prior. It was an absolutely terrible movie, made better with great company.

The moment I first walked into her apartment, a week later, and was greeted affectionately — like an old friend — by her “shy, aloof” cat Mayo, I think we both knew that we had found in each other a partner who complimented our best selves.

Taleigha told me that night about her brain tumor. She wanted to make sure I was okay dating someone (it had been a week and, yes, we were dating) who had fought through such a dramatic battle against cancer. My reaction was to hug her tight, and to give her the first of many thousand kisses I would give her over the years. It was truly the beginning of our life together.

Five months later, we celebrated with friends as that young senator was elected as the first African American President of the United States. A month later, she had moved in with me — my new roommate. We knew we were far more and that we would be together the rest of our lives. Six months later our family unit would become complete when our beloved cat Mara joined, at Taleigha’s urging. We would later mourn that completeness, as we both wanted a family together — more than even the cats could provide.

From a proposal on the beach in Florida, to moving into our new home — not “Ben’s Condo” anymore but “our home” — to a wedding at the heart of this very city surrounded by many of the same friends and family here today.

And for a time, things were good. We traveled, dined, fought, saw concerts, and enjoyed each other’s company and the company of friends. Our love grew in the light of our young hopes and dreams. We talked about starting a family.

But cancer is a thief, and a villain. When her diagnosis came back, 5 years, ago she told me “I love you” and, quoting Doctor Who, “I don’t want to go.” For five years, we fought tooth and nail against this villain. During that time, we still traveled, dined, fought, saw concerts, and enjoyed each other’s company and the company of friends. We grew our love in a darkness that I truly hope no one here ever experiences.

And during that time, I powerlessly watched as the beautiful, eloquent and talented woman I fell in love with had nearly everything stolen from her. It took her career of helping others, it took her dexterity and the the wondrous piano music she played, it took her grace with words, it took her independence when it took her ability to drive, it took her hair (that she was so proud of), it took her memories. It took her ability to walk, to feed herself, to speak all but the easiest of phrases and words. And then it took her away from me. The only things she had at the end were her sense of humor and her capacity to love. Her last day on this Earth, she laughed softly at some silly joke I made and she told me “I love you.”

Taleigha’s favorite author was CS Lewis. She left me a little gift, as she had a passage bookmarked in his journal, A Grief Observed. In it, Lewis wrote of remembering his own wife as the person she was, not the picture of the person constructed in his mind. There is a tendency in all of us to remember departed loved ones as their ideal. Taleigha was very loving, but she could hold a grudge and be extremely stubborn — the Gumm in her, as she would say. She was kind, but she could be bossy and demanding. She was courageous, strong, and brave, but she had many many fears, especially of spiders!

We all love Taleigha, but not because she was perfect. She wouldn’t want to be remembered as perfect. She was flawed — as we all are — and we love her because of those flaws that made her human and because of the wonderful qualities she exemplified everyday, qualities that we could strive to achieve.

A friend, in offering me a small amount of comfort — call it a Quantum of Solace, for she loved James Bond too — reminded me of a quote from one of Taleigha’s other favorite works: Harry Potter. He hadn’t realized it was a favorite of hers, so I think of it as providence.

“Love as powerful as her’s for you leaves its own mark. To have loved and been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”

My love to all of you. Thank you.”

We love you, Bennie!

Today’s post is by my son, Brad Ton. On Father’s Day this year, Brad was asked to share his thought with the congregation at First Baptist Church (the church he grew up in) about his experience with First Baptist Athletics. For those not familiar with FBA, it is a youth sports program developed by First Baptist as community outreach fifty years ago this year. Both my sons, Brad and his older brother Jeremy, participated in baseball, soccer and basketball…and yes, for most of those 15 years, I was coach. 

Good Morning!  It is my honor and privilege to be with you this morning, on this Father’s Day, to share with you my experiences with First Baptist Athletics.

It dawned on me as I was preparing my remarks for this morning that today marks 17 years to the day, June 17th, that my Grandfather, Gene Ton, baptized me here at First Baptist Church.  

family, baseball, FBA

Brad circa a million years ago

Some of you may know me and some of you may not.  I grew up in this church and in the FBA program. As a kid I had the opportunity to participate in sports such as soccer, baseball and of course…basketball.  Throughout my childhood experience at First Baptist Athletics, I learned a lot of valuable lessons.

The importance of working with a team, how to be a good sport (win or lose) and quite possibly the most important lesson of all: as soon as you step foot on the basketball court…you’re open.  Hey, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?

As a kid, I was lucky.  My Dad was my coach. Countless evening practices and Saturday morning games, my Dad was there.  Some say it can be hard being the “coach’s son”, but it never was for us. He always treated me just like everyone else on the team.  There was no extra special praise and I most certainly was not given a pass where others were not. The importance of those lessons has always stuck with me. It was our time together and I truly appreciate all of the time and energy he put in to making it so special.  20 some years later, I can officially relate!

A kid growing up in the First Baptist Athletics program is a lucky one.  I’d be remiss not to mention George Robinson who was the FBA Athletic Director throughout my time in the program.  Looking back, I’m not quite sure how George had the patience and wherewithal to handle hundreds of EXTREMELY energetic, sugar-filled youngsters every weekend.  But somehow, he did and he did it amazingly. I’m extremely grateful for his guidance throughout my youth.

Fast forward SEVERAL years later and our son Jordan was getting to the age where it was time to play ball! There was no doubt in my mind where I wanted him to play.  Thankfully, my wife fully endorses my itch for nostalgia. We immediately signed him up for First Baptist Athletics T-Ball. Initially, I wasn’t going to coach. I had just stared a new job, I was involved in some other things and the timing just was not right.  Then I got an email from FBA Athletic Director Steve Carr, that said the 4 Year Old T-Ball League is still in need of coaches…… I forwarded to my wife, Holly, who said “well… there you go!” It was meant to be.

family, baseball, FBA

Jordan, Brad & Grandpa 2018

Coaching my son Jordan this season is one of the greatest things I have ever done.  He probably would not tell you the same thing today, but that’s okay. Even when the hot summer sun has him tired and rolling in the dirt during the 2nd inning, I know…in that moment…we are truly…truly bonding.  Really though, seeing the smile on his face, interacting with other kids and learning how to be part of a team in the FBA environment has been remarkable.  As a parent, you want your child to learn the lessons of life that they need to properly grow and mature…but…could you also stay wrapped up in this bubble while you do that please??  No, FBA is not a bubble. Trust me, those baseballs can leave a mark if you aren’t paying attention! It is a place where kids are free to succeed. Where they are free to fail. And where they have a tremendous opportunity to learn from both.  

We chose to participle in First Baptist Athletics because, quite honestly, in today’s world, the environment created here is rare.  It is truly about having fun. Every kid, regardless of skill, size, ability, background, every kid gets a chance to play and learn.  I’ve seen some amazing things take place on the fields and courts at First Baptist Athletics. And it is all due to fun and safe environment that has been created and sustained here.  I’m extremely proud to play a small part in continuing the success of the program that has brought me and my family so much joy.

Thank you and Happy Father’s Day.

Brad Ton, June 17, 2018 delivered to First Baptist Church


Friends, Music, Life


“What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s happening!”

About the time the Original Cast album of Jesus Christ Superstar was released in 1970, I was moving from the small farming community of Lebanon, Indiana to Evansville, the third or fourth largest city in Indiana. Little did I know the opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber would be the soundtrack for much of my teenage life and become the impetus for a spiritual journey that has lasted for decades.

The life we lived in Lebanon was idyllic; small town USA. Dad was the minister for the First Baptist Church, a community leader, incredibly respected. In the minds and hearts of many he was right up there with The Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and the Pope. I whine a lot about being a PK (preacher’s kid), but truth be told, I was extremely proud to be my father’s son (and still am!).

I never saw myself as one of the popular kids, but, I did have a lot of friends. We had grown up together either at Central Elementary, at First Baptist Church or both. We played Little League baseball together, we played sandlot ball together, we were in Scouts together; Jeff, Tim, Randy, David, Jeff (Jeff was a very popular name), Charlie, Lisa, Betsy, Jill, Susan…and, many, many more.  

In the spring of 1970, we were promoted out of the sixth and into the seventh grade…Junior High School! Filled with pride, excitement and just a touch of anxiety! We said our goodbyes and went on summer break and vacations vowing to that we would all stay close friends in the much larger Junior High.

It was during this summer of 1970, our parents announced we were moving to Evansville. God was calling dad to a new congregation, in a much larger city, away from all our friends, away from the life we knew. But, how could you argue with God’s call? We were going to move in October. For me, this meant six weeks at the Lebanon Junior High School, a chance to say goodbye to all my friends.

For me, this meant a return to elementary school. Yes, Evansville schools at the time were K through 8, and High School was 9 through 12. So, after achieving one of life’s greatest rewards of going to Junior High, I would be back in elementary school. Devastated does not begin to describe it.

For me, this meant having to try out for the baseball team, instead of “graduating” from Little League to American Legion ball where all the coaches knew me and my abilities. It meant, not being good enough to be “drafted” for the league and having to play in an instructional league that was one step above sandlot.

For me, this meant joining a Scout troop with twenty kids I did not know. Twenty kids who did not take scouting as seriously as my friends and I had. They didn’t wear a proper uniform or even try to progress through the ranks. Me, in my fully pressed and immaculate uniform, with my sash filled with merit badges, and my rank of Life Scout stuck out like a new kid never wants to do. Heck, most these kids even smoked on camping trips (OK, I was a little naive and sheltered).  

The first day in my new school, my new elementary school came. The principal took me to my new home room. 25 kids who had grown up together. 25 kids who had already been in school six weeks. 25 kids who started at the new kid as the principal introduced me to the teacher. The teacher who stood me up in front of the class and asked “who can show Jeff around the school and introduce him to everyone?” 25 kids whose 50 hands were glued to their desktops and whose eyes refused to make eye contact. Finally, a hand raises and I hear voice say, “I’ll show him around.” (Thank you to Hal Bloss for being my first friend in Evansville! (and one of the longest lasting))

One of the people Hal introduced me to that day was Charlie Hagan. In 1970, I was just beginning to discover music, the Monkees, the Beatles, the Partridge Family (yes, I confess). Charlie and I began to explore music together. (He even let me listen to his album by the Rolling Stones!). Together we dreamed of becoming rock stars, even dressing like them…bell bottoms, puffy-sleeved shirts in wild colors, clothes patched with American Flag cloth, chokers…you get the picture.

I was learning to play guitar, Charlie the drums. Together with Jimmie Gains and Jeff Wilhite, we formed a band called the E’ville Spirits, though I don’t think we ever played a note together, Charlie and I would jam for hours on end.

We started writing songs together, Hagan ‘n Ton, destined to be the next Lennon & McCartney or Jagger & Richards. Honestly, we wrote very little music, we wrote lyrics and dreamed. We designed album covers and we even played for a school assembly. To this day, I can remember Hal being our biggest fan. “I know you guys are going to do it”, he would say.

A couple years passed and now it was time to go to high school. Charlie and I had written at least five “albums” of song lyrics by then. But, life was about ready to change again. Charlie’s family were devout Catholics. Charlie would be going to one of the Catholic High Schools. Ugh! Well, we could still get together on weekends to “rehearse”! Then, more news came. Charlie was an accomplished dancer, performing in multiple productions. Over the summer, he had been accepted into a boarding school in Illinois. It seems the boarding school focused on dance as well as academics.

Before he left for school, Charlie had one last gift for me. As we were saying our goodbyes, each trying desperately not to cry, he reached into a box and gave me his well worn and scratched copy of an opera, really, an opera!??! Yeah, I knew that Tommy by the Who was a rock opera, but this one wasn’t about a pinball wizard…of course, it was Jesus Christ Superstar.

I had heard parts of it coming from my older brother’s room and liked it but I had never really listened to it, never really heard the words, never really felt the impact…until then. I listened to it over and over and over again, I memorized the words, I learned some of the music. This was controversial…at a time in this teenagers life when he was starting to question authority and status quo. It was mesmerizing.

The story of the week leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, told from the perspective of his betrayer and his friend, Judas. It was a story of Christ’s humanity. For me, it was the first picture of Jesus as a man. It was the first time he felt real, instead of a character in a bible story. The Opera was met with protest when it was first written, In fact, Rice and Webber could not find anyone who would produce the play. Instead, they turned to the record company who had produced “Tommy” for the Who and released it as a concept album.

When the play was produced, it was met with picketers at the theatre. Christians felt it depicted Jesus as too human. The Jewish community felt it portrayed them as the assassins who killed him. It was a multi-faceted story. Yes, it was set in the year 30 AD, but it was as much about the political unrest of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Prophetically, it even serves as a picture of the political climate in 2018.

Perhaps the biggest outcry then as of now, is the ending. The story ends with the crucifixion. I have to admit, it bugged me too back then (however, I will say, the ending to NBC’s production on Easter Sunday 2018 was awe inspiring). But, back in 1972 and 73, it felt incomplete. I was starting to enter my “Jesus Freak” phase, listening to Godspell, Larry Norman, and Phil Keaggy. In 1973, the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar hit the theatres. Our entire church youth group went to a screening.

In the movie, there is a moment, a moment that stopped time. It was at the end of the scene for the song Trial Before Pilate. You know the one? The one with the 39 lashes. That scene. The actor who had just flogged Jesus 39 times. Stops. Panting. And stares quizzically at Jesus. THAT scene. That quizzical look. What was he thinking? What was he feeling. I began, what was to become a lifelong obsession with research and learning.  I had to know more.

I was soon to learn about Ius Gladii, the right of the sword. Dating back to roman times. It was the right to issue punishment (including flogging and crucifixion) for crimes. I read descriptions of the whip, medical accounts of the flogging and of the crucifixion. I had to write the ending, the “proper” ending.

What started as a simple poem “Ius Gladii – The Right of the Sword” grew into a full rock opera, title “He Has Risen” The story of Christ from the burial to the ascension.  I still remember snippets. From Ius Gladii:

When you stood staring quizzically
At my prophet King
What did you think of my lord then?
Was he different from the rest?

And from the title song, “He Has Risen”

He Has Risen
Just as he said
He Has Risen
Just as he said, he would

I can still hear the melody in my head when I type those words.

I would spend the next two years honing the lyrics, studying music theory and composition to be able to write the orchestration, and working with the late Mark X. Hatfield to turn my music scores into reality and bring the words to life. Alas, Mark was probably the only one that ever heard my rock opera. It, like the hundreds of songs (lyrics) I wrote in me teens and twenties, lost to time.

When it was time to enter college, I decided to study Music Theory and Composition. That decision was heavily influenced by composing (and I use that word loosely) my rock opera. While I learned very quickly one had to have talent (and play an instrument…rock guitar did not count) and changed my major, I continued to write song lyrics and poetry well into my 30’s.

I won’t be as bold as to say Jesus Christ Superstar saved my life, but to an awkward, pimple-faced, shy teenager it was magic and I can say, it forever changed his life!