Thomas L. Law

August 04, 2012|By JANET HEIM |
  • Tom and Sandra Law pose for this 2003 church directory photo with their two children, Allen and Anna.
Submitted photo

SMITHSBURG, Md. — There are no two ways about it — Thomas “Tom” Law was a craftsman.

From his training at a private art school in Washington, D.C., in seventh and eighth grade, electrical training while in the U.S. Navy, to his skills as a carpenter, sharpener of vintage hand saws and maker and restorer of Civil War drums, Law was known far and wide for his talents.

“He was multitalented with multiple interests. You’d think any one of them would have been enough,” said Tom’s oldest brother, Preston E. “Toby” Law Jr. of Hagerstown.

“They started intertwining. His woodworking led to the Civil War drums,” said wife Sandra Law of Smithsburg.

The demand for Tom’s services sharpening hand saws was so great that he had to discontinue that work. He also crafted wooden jewelry boxes and picture frames, restored old tools and wooden pieces discarded or purchased at auction, collected old hand tools, including 300 hand saws, and wrote for a home-building magazine.

Tom was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Great Falls, Va., the third of Preston E. Law Sr. and Gertrude Law’s four children. The youngest died of rheumatic fever when he was 8 or 9.

In time, the couple divorced. Preston Sr. remarried when Tom was 12. He and his second wife had four sons, whom Tom considered part of a large extended family.

Toby said Maxine Rajkovich, who was a commercial artist and did some cartooning for Disney, was the “benefactor aunt.” She is the one who recognized Tom’s artistic talent and paid for him to attend art school.

Toby said Tom had a round pot belly as a toddler. Maxine would thump his belly as though it were a drum, so she called him Tom-Tom, perhaps a precursor to his interest in drums.

After graduating from Fairfax (Va.) High School, Tom served in the U.S. Navy for four years, where he learned the skills to be an electrician. He was determined to be the most capable person to cut hair on board the aircraft carrier and learned from practice.

Following his Navy years, Tom was unable to find a job as an electrician, so he studied to be a journeyman carpenter, which led to a 50-year career as a carpenter, cabinetmaker and home builder. Although he was not a licensed barber, Tom worked as a barber in McLean, Va., while in carpentry school.

Each chapter in Tom’s life seemed to lead to another new skill and more connections.

“He had a lot of interesting, in fact, spectacular coincidences in his life,” Toby said.

Toby said his brother was proud to count the children of Robert F. Kennedy, before he had risen in the political ranks, as his clients. The Kennedys lived in Langley, Va., at the time.

Toby said their family originally is from Scotland and around the time of the Revolution, moved to the United States and settled in New England before heading south. Their great-great-grandfather was from Georgia, great-grandfather from Alabama and their father, Preston Sr., settled in Texas, then moved to the Washington, D.C., area during the Depression and worked as a railroad engineer.

While Tom was aboard ship in the Navy, a Turkish group came on board. Toby said Tom was dressed in period costume with a group of fife and drummers. It was at that point he decided he’d learn to drum.

In 1972, Tom’s interest in Civil War re-enacting led to his involvement with the Harts Battery Company B. Toby said the extended family got interested in re-enacting and had enough members to start their own team.

They chose their great-grandfather’s unit, the 3rd Alabama Volunteer Infantry, and competed in black powder shooting competitions. In 1988, Tom got involved with the 21st Georgia living history re-enactment group.

Tom was 40 when he started drumming, one of the oldest students of John Bosworth, who was well-known in the Baltimore/D.C. area, and who played for dignitaries.  

“He just immersed himself in it. He became one of the leaders. He taught many, many students,” Toby said of his brother. He drummed at re-enactments, parades and at a Carnegie Hall performance with a fife and drum corps.

As Tom got more into the drumming, he realized the potential for using his carpentry skills to restore and make Civil War-era drums and started a business called Old Drums Made New.

“When Tom put his mind to anything, he could do it,” Sandra said.

She said Tom found some drum shells in Baltimore, made hoops and ears, the leather pieces, and found a source overseas for linen rope.

After Tom and his first wife divorced, he was working in the Westminster, Md., area and looking for a place to ballroom dance. He went to the dance studio in Westminster, where Sandra was taking dance lessons, and he started attending the Friday night socials.

Sandra said she liked to make Tom smile to see the dimple in his cheek.

“He had a nice laugh. He enjoyed life,” Sandra said.

Tom and Sandra married in the late 1980s and have two children, who are in college. While the children were growing up, the family went to Pen Mar Park every Sunday so the parents could dance and the children could play, Sandra said.

It was Tom’s penchant for preservation that prompted the family to settle in the area. Tom spent a year building a home for Toby off Mount Aetna Road in Hagerstown, which was completed in 1993.

Tom went to the auction of the M.P. Moller Organ Co. equipment when the factory closed and purchased a half-dozen wooden work benches and other items. In need of a place to store his new treasures, the family purchased a house in Smithsburg in 1994 and settled there.

Tom restored the outhouse, smokehouse and chicken coop on the property. When Tom learned the fire department was going to burn the vacant barn on the property next to them, he got permission to move it and used telephone poles to roll the barn to their property, Sandra said. The family’s deck is made out of wood from an old water tower.

“That’s one thing about Tom. He liked to preserve things. He believed in preserving the old ways, antique tools,” Sandra said.

Tom was quick to share his knowledge of his many interests with others, often speaking to groups, including the Smithsburg Historical Society, of which he was a member.

He wrote letters to Fine Homebuilding magazine that led to him working as a contributing editor for 14 years. Tom also appeared in several workshop videos in his areas of expertise.

“He was the go-to guy for answers,” Sandra said.

Life changed for Tom after a stroke about three years ago, complicated by Parkinson’s disease.

“He couldn’t use his hands anymore, so he couldn’t hold (drum) sticks, a musket or sharpen saws,” Toby said. “He couldn’t do all the things he loved to do. It was a tough three years.”

Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Thomas L. Law, who died July 18 at the age of 74. His obituary was published in the July 25 edition of The Herald-Mail.

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