CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He's a charismatic do-gooder, eternally cheerful, caring, philosophical and full of one-liners that make people smile.
Many awards -- including the national Jefferson Award bestowed in Washington, D.C. -- recognize the uplifting people-oriented pursuits that drive Tom Toliver.
He mentors prison inmates and their children and goes bowling with mentally challenged people every Wednesday. Nothing fills him with more joy than the community gardens program he started on the West Side. The civic service resume includes a lifetime of church work.
He grew up in South Hills, son of a chauffeur and maid. As a boy, he plowed gardens with a horse, delivered papers, chopped wood, mowed grass, anything to meet the demanding work ethic instilled by his father.
He earned his living as a welder, plant expeditor and custodian.
At 80, he remains devoted to his multifaceted people-ministry. He operates from an office at the West Virginia State Economic Development Center.
"I grew up on Newton Road in South Hills. My father knew only two words: God and work. He was a chauffeur for the Newton Thomas family. My mother was their maid. We lived in an apartment above the garage. It's still there.
"I started working by hoeing a garden. It was a progression. I started working with a horse, plowing all over South Hills. They paid me good. I passed newspapers. If I saw a place where a garden was or could be, I would tell those people I would plow for them. And word got around.
"Later on, I got a Gravely tractor with money I earned from plowing. Gravely tractors were made in Dunbar. The tractor made it a smooth operation. Once you plowed, the garden was ready to sow. Even today, I show kids how to plow with a Gravely tractor.
"On South Hills, there was a little black elementary school on Oakmont Road. We played with the white kids, but we couldn't go to school with them. We use to walk by Fernbank School all the way to the black school, but my daddy never made a big issue about that kind of thing. That's just what was going on then. I have white friends coming back to me today to apologize because they weren't aware that I could not go in a drug store there and sit down and drink a soda.
"We had to wait for the whites to get on the bus, then we could get on. But you'd never hear our family getting involved in racial issues.
"My daddy was so heavenly-minded that earthly things didn't matter. He just thought it was foolishness. He said you got things to do, so you don't have time to get involved in all this. So we never made an issue of it. The way things are going for me now, I don't have any regrets.
"I went to another black school, Boyd Elementary, on Shrewsbury Street, and finished at Garnet High in 1951.
"I like to tease Danny Jones and dare him to get out of hand. His grandmother was a Pritchard, and they had a car dealership, and she was good to me because she knew of my character and how I worked hard. If it was raining and I was walking off the hill, she would pick me up and take me on down.
"There was Miss Dick's school on Lookout Road. They wanted to take me in, but I worked so hard I never could attend.
"I've seen big changes in Charleston. Are you familiar with Bedford Road? It was a desolate area. It had two knolls and across them was a long cable, and on that cable was a duffle bag of mail. A plane would come by and drop the mail and scoop the other mail up in the cabin. And that's how airmail got here before the airport.
"I used to work over there in that field for the Battles. That was one of my highlights, to watch the mail drop.
"I went to college to get away from my father's work ethic. It took me 25 years to finish because I played all the way through. They pulled my deferment and I went in the Army right after the Korean War. They sent me to Columbia, S.C., and Fort Knox.
"I didn't know they were preparing me for the Vietnam War because it wasn't a full stage war. They were just sending advisers over. I ended up in Fort Bragg and came home, and I was put on the reserve list.
"Down in South Charleston, they were building personnel carriers and they trained me to be a welder through FMC Ordnance. I welded there for 12 years.