By Nancy Jo Maples
Christmastime offers opportunities for stories, and here's one worth sharing. This story is about candy canes; in particular, it's about the candy canes hanging all around Lucedale.
This story is about Thomas Strahan.
A car accident caused Thomas to depart this world much too early; yet, he packed a lot of life into his short amount of time, and he left a legacy in Lucedale with handmade, colorful, wooden candy canes that have hung year after year for the past 26 Christmases.
Thomas was 12 years old when he painted the canes for a Boy Scouts of America project in 1993. He was a Life Scout working on requirements for the prestigious Eagle Scout rank. In order to earn the rank of Eagle, Boy Scouts must advance through the lower rankings, earn a specific number of merit badges and hold leadership positions in their troop. The process is a lengthy one.
One requirement is that the scout spearhead a service project designed to benefit the community. This "big" project is a key factor in earning the Eagle rank. However, scouts do not take any sort of credit for their projects. Newspaper articles might be written about them and their project at the time of the event, but scouts' names are not affixed to their projects, and after a few years pass, people often forget the name of the scout who contributed time and energy to some of a community's enhancements. As time passes, some scout projects might no longer benefit the community at all.
However, long after its origin, Thomas' scout project continues to benefit his community. Each year as city crewmen screw the wooden adornments onto poles and posts along the streets, people who knew Thomas enjoy a flashback to the sweet, slender, blonde-haired, brown-eyed boy whose memory and whose canes still decorate Lucedale. The one who remembers him best is his mother Regenia Eubanks Jones. "They're sweet memories," she recalled. "He was very organized about what he needed to do. He knew what supplies he needed and what time he needed to be certain places. All I did was to take him wherever he needed to be because he was too young to drive."
Helping Thomas with the project were the Lucedale City Public Works Department, then-director of Public Works Charlie Graham, then-mayor A.B. Brantley and then-city clerk Adrienne Howell. Other key assistance came from inmates outsourced from the Community Work Center as laborers for the city. The wooden designs were cut by city workers and painted by Thomas and his assistants.
"The inmates helped him paint and on the last day of painting, as I was driving him there, he told me he needed to stop and buy some cigarettes. I said 'what!' and he told me he wanted to give cigarettes to the inmates who had helped him," Regenia said.
Approximately 260 candy canes, accented with bows, dot Lucedale's landscape, according to City Clerk Kathy Johnson Anderson. Thomas' original canes have been repainted through the years and additional ones have been cut and painted to add to the collection. The project, however, remains Thomas' gift.
Born on April Fool's Day in 1981, Thomas died on January 27, 1996, shortly before his 15th birthday. He was in the ninth grade at George County High School. A memory book cherished by his mother showcases photos depicting his growth from toddler to teenager and features some school assignments including a first-grade writing skill assignment and a poem from high school that he wrote just a few days before his death.
"He had a great childhood. He got to do a lot of things like go to mountains and go to Disney World. And scouting and soccer were important to him," his mother said.
As a member of Scout Troop #25, Thomas avidly camped and hiked with his fellow scouts. In addition to being a Life Scout, Thomas was a member of the Woapalonne Chapter of the Order of the Arrow. Tony Keel was scoutmaster at the time and many of Thomas' friends were troop members. One of Thomas' scouting adventures involved a two-and one-half-week trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico to hike the Rocky Mountains. Other adventures included jamborees and summer camps at Camp Tiak north of Wiggins.
"Scouting took him from a mama's boy to a man," Regenia said.
Thomas was about two years old when his father Tommy Strahan passed away. Regenia and her husband of 34 years, Ed Jones, raised Thomas and his step-brother Josh Jones and half-sister Hannah Jones.
Another interest of Thomas was soccer. He excelled in the recreational league as a youngster and later as a member of the George County High School junior varsity and varsity teams. Most often he played the forward position. His death affected many youths with devastation and realization. Classmates, teammates and fellow scouts not only attended his funeral, but also wrote poems about Thomas that were given to his mother. His soccer jersey was retired, and a trophy was put in the school's athletic case in his memory. Tiak memorialized Thomas with a special ceremony.
The fatal automobile accident happened while Thomas was riding with his uncle Robert Strahan and his cousin Justin Strahan. The trio had been to Woolmarket on a construction job. The Strahan family is well-known in south Mississippi for their construction skills and work. Thomas enjoyed being a part of the Strahan work crew and learning the craft. It was a Saturday evening, and they were headed back to George County where Thomas planned to spend the night with his cousin to work on their model car hobby.
They had stopped prior to the wreck to buy glue for assembling the cars. The two boys had fallen asleep after a long day, and Thomas was leaning against the passenger door. Justin was leaning against his father. A reckless driver traveling at an excessive speed failed to navigate a curve in Vancleave and struck Strahan's pick-up truck with the final impact hitting the passenger door where Thomas was leaning.
One of the last class assignments that Thomas submitted in school was a poem about a bee that mentions the storyteller falling asleep while leaning against a tree. The poem ends with the narrator living in the afterlife as a bee. It is dated 10 days before the auto crash.
"It's poignant to me that he wrote that. It's almost like he was foretelling how he would die," Regenia said. "However, he is not living in the afterlife as a bee."
Instead, Thomas lives in Regenia's heart. And his candy canes warm his community's hearts as they continue to be hung each Christmas after all these years.
There was a bee
beside a tree.
And in that tree that little bee
stung me on my knee.
I squashed the bee and then
I said gee that sure was
a nice bee.
After that I fell asleep
against the tree.
When I awoke
I sneezed, when
I realized where
I was at, I was
pleased to see
that I was in
the afterlife -
living as a
Nancy Jo Maples is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about Mississippi people and places for more than 30 years. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.