The Love of the Game Led to the Love of Their Lives
The Love of the Game Led to the Love of Their Lives
“I have a story the magazine might want to have,” said the caller, Richard Craft. “It might sound sad because they have both passed away, but it’s romantic. They’re buried together where they met – in the part of the National Cemetery that used to be Andrews Field.”
It is romantic. The life story of Tom and Lucille Craft is loving and so All-American. He was a young soldier stationed at Camp Chaffee. She was a local Fort Smith Giants fan when they met in the grandstand at Andrews Field, in 1948. They began a two-year courtship that led to a long marriage and three children.
Tom died Aug. 8. “Mother died Nov. 17, 99 days apart. They were both 88,” Richard said. Lucille’s last years were fogged by dementia. “She may not even have understood that he had died,” he said. Time is restoring his memories of his mother before her illness. Going through his parents’ belongings is bringing him some enjoyment and reflection.
His mom’s family were avid fans of the Giants. Among his parents’ things is a well-stocked scrapbook his mother had compiled. Her father, Ted McGee, worked at Harding Glass and her mother was a great cook. The family made friends with the team and often invited them home for meals.
Richard said his grandfather once missed only three games in two years – a fact noted in a newspaper clipping in the scrapbook, along with players’ photographs and souvenirs.
“They were just fans. They were not well off,” Richard explained. “My grandmother was a fabulous cook, whether cooking for 1 or 50. She was the second of 16 kids and started cooking when she was 4 years old, standing on a milk crate.”
Young Tom was probably lucky that Lucille paid any attention to a soldier from North Carolina, but clearly, he won her heart.
“They got married at Midland Heights Methodist Church. Mom’s sister was her maid of honor. G.O. Webb, another soldier, who is still alive, was Dad’s best man. I think my grandmother came from North Carolina for it,” Richard said. Tom Craft never returned to his home state except to visit. Times had been hard there.
“Dad was born in 1930 and his own father passed away when he was 9 years old. They had to sell the farm and move in with grandparents,” said Richard. “When his father was alive, they had about a 150-acre farm. When he was a little boy, they would pick beans and peas and whatever else they had to sell. On Saturdays, they’d load up the pickup and drive to the country store, then sign a ticket for gas. They’d go into town to the farmers market. They’d put him out front, shelling peas or breaking beans. The city ladies would come by and buy from them first because Dad was cute in his little overalls.”
“If they had good day, then they would drive back to the store and pay the gas bill off. Dad said, ‘If we had a really good day, we’d get a Baby Ruth candy bar. Sometimes we’d have to break one in half.’”
“His whole world changed when he was 9. He had to grow up and become a man at an early age. In high school, he drove a school bus. You wouldn’t turn 17 today and drive a school bus,” Richard observed. “At 17, he had his mom sign so he could get in the Army before he was 18. After basic training, they sent him to Camp Chaffee.”
After his service, “Dad was a letter carrier. He retired from the Postal Service at 59 and a half.” Tom and Lucille raised three sons, Charles, Tom Jr. and Richard. Tom Jr., “Tooter,” died three years ago. Lucille was a Sunday school teacher and Tom was a deacon. Richard recalls a happy upbringing with parents who passed their values to their sons.
Tom knew every resident on his mail routes and was a good friend to his own long-time neighbors in Sutton Estates, Richard said. Many will remember him for putting an American flag at each mailbox. Tom also was a member of the Sebastian County Quorum Court for 16 years.
“He thought that was doing something to contribute back to the community, by doing public service,” Richard said. “Dad always said he wanted to do his civic duty, to make Sebastian County a better place than he had found it.”
As a justice of the peace, Tom officiated more than 7,000 marriages.
Lucille and Tom returned to Andrews Field to sit in the bleachers where they met and watch grandchildren play softball. Tom kept an eye on the project to expand the Fort Smith National Cemetery. He and his wife had purchased burial plots at Roselawn Cemetery, but Tom thought if Andrews Field were absorbed, they would change their plans. He joked that he hoped to be buried “on home plate.”
Richard said his father worked hard to care for his mother at home, but in their final years, she, then he, moved into nursing care. Even so, Richard was able to make one more special baseball memory with his dad when the 2016 Chicago Cubs began making a run at the World Series. With the help of a friend, physician and pilot Dr. James Kelly, they made a private flight to a September game at Wrigley Field.
“We landed at a municipal airport. We were dropped off right at Wrigley, which is handicapped accessible. I got reserved seats with a wheelchair seat. We were about nine rows behind home plate,” he said. “He was back in his own bed that night.” He will be forever grateful to Dr. Kelly for making that grand day possible, Richard said. “Dad took me to my first major league game, and I took him to his last.”
When the Cubs made it to the World Series, Richard offered to get tickets again, but his dad declared he’d had his fun. They watched the suspenseful seven-game battle against the Cleveland Indians at Tom’s nursing home. “For Game 7, I brought hot dogs and popcorn,” Richard said. And together, they saw the Chicago Cubs win the World Series for the first time since 1908. Tom wasn’t the oldest fan, but he had waited longer than many for that glorious win.
“When Dad was a little boy, the neighbors down the road were the only ones who had a radio,” Richard said. “When he was 5, he was finally old enough to go with his brother to sit on that family’s front porch and listen to the Chicago Cubs. So Dad was an avid Cubs fan his entire life.”
That same fall, Army beat Navy in football.
“Dad said, ‘I guess I’m about ready to check out, all my teams have won!’” his son laughed, recalling it.
Tom was a bit tickled that the National Cemetery did expand into the former Andrews Field ballpark and he was aware that he and Lucille would be buried there together, at the place where they met as teenagers.
Now that his grief of their deaths is easing, their son takes comfort from the thought, as well.
“They’re kind of nestled out there just behind the shortstop. They’re definitely on the field,” he said. “I’d say they circled the bases.”
– by Lynn Wasson
This article appears in the February 2019 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.