Longtime lovebirds made a career giving back to community
By Tim Traeger
WHITTIER — If you want the ultimate sendoff when your mortal coil escapes this earth, look no further than the Rev. Thomas Boles. If volunteerism is your passion, look no further than Tom’s wife, Virginia.
A multiplatformed businessman in everything from embalming, mergers and acquisitions, sales (of anything) and community service, Tom recently added another feather to his gently graying cap – the 2013 Myron Claxton Distinguished YMCA Service Award from the YMCA of Greater Whittier. Involved in the ‘Y’ for 80 of her 88 years, Virginia was equally honored.
“I have really not met anyone in Whittier who works so tirelessly on behalf of so many good causes than Tom and Virginia,” said Mike Blackmore, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Whittier. “The YMCA has been a huge beneficiary of their time, talent and treasure. But the thing that makes me feel the best is that both Tom and Virginia grew up in the YMCA. Virginia attended our very own YMCA Camp Arbolado when she was a little girl and Tom with the ‘Y’ in Columbus, Ohio. So even though I did not know them personally the first 70 years of their lives, I know that the ‘Y’ was there helping to raise solid citizens just like we endeavor to do today. I count Tom and Virginia as two of YMCA’s and Whittier’s best friends.”
“It was fun to be involved in the ‘Y’,” Virginia said. “And know that you were trying to make the community a better place for youths. It’s amazing how many kids come to the ‘Y’ now. Little guys and older people, there’s something there for everybody. I was just happy to be part of that. I was proud to be on the board.”
Although Tom Boles, 86, was honored for his commitment to the YMCA, his experience as a minister is his current claim to fame. When someone who has ever heard him deliver a eulogy needs someone to officiate over a funeral service, the phone rings.
“There’s a lot of people that after they hear Tom give a service, they say they would like Tom to do my service,” Virginia said inside their palatial four-story, four-bathroom home in La Habra.. “There’s been people from the Friends Church and Presbyterian Church that have their own ministers who still ask Tom to come in and do it. People from the Shrine.”
Virginia guessed her husband of 33 years has performed at least 80 final sendoffs, many to important community leaders like former Whittier Mayor Delta Murphy and former columnist and former Whittier Daily News editor Bill Bell.
“In addition to weddings and baby blessings. It’s just kind of amazing how these people come out of the woodwork and ask him. Whether it’s a funeral or a wedding or whatever,” Virginia said.
While Virginia – a third generation Whittierite – is a staunch supporter of the Assistance League of Whittier, the Whittier Historical Society, the YMCA and myriad other philanthropic groups, her husband comes with his own impressive resume. Tom runs a ministry on Skid Row, pastors to two local churches and holds down the religious fort at PIH Health, formerly known as Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital, and was knighted by the Greek Orthodox Church. When he was potentate of the Shriners in the greater Los Angeles area, he oversaw 25,000 members. In addition he helped form the Whittier Area First Day Coalition, a homeless shelter, alongside the late community icon and oil man Ed Shannon. He is a former president of the Rio Hondo Symphony.
Tom Boles was born in Shadyside, Ohio. The future man of God got his early beginnings in Columbus. At the age of 4, the giddy red-head was tap dancing for pennies. Literally.
“I started performing in Shadyside when I was quite young. I was 4 or 5 years old when I got my first stage appearance at a Masonic lodge. I was a tap dancer. All of my performances were from Pittsburg to Whitting, W.Va. and the Ohio Valley.
“It was Vaudeville,” Virginia interjected.
“I stayed in show business until high school in Columbus,” the reverend said. “What we got paid was from what people threw up on the stage, which was basically pennies. In those days pennies bought a lot. Ten pennies bought a loaf of bread. Ten pennies bought a quart of milk. Pennies counted and my mom (Irene) made sure I picked every penny up,” Tom Boles said.
“It was tough. We had to watch the food. A can of beans had to last two nights. A loaf of bread had to last a week. A quart of milk had to last three days. We always had enough to eat though. I don’t remember ever being hungry. I know my mom had to be measuring everything to make it last,” he said.
Boles took dancing lessons from Mary Elizabeth Vasic, who trained Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson. “That was kind of her fame,” Boles said.
In an antiquated form of day care, Irene had to make sure her only son wasn’t goofing off after school.
“She had to make sure I went some place. I either had to go to the YMCA or my church. And sign in and stay there until she got out of work.”
Tom Boles entered the U.S. Navy right out of high school. He was sworn in and served aboard the military transport ship the USS Admiral Simms, AP 127, in 1945.
“We weren’t in any sea battles because we were always hiding from the enemy,” Boles said.
After leaving the Navy, Boles briefly attended pre-med school at Otterbein College in Ohio on the GI Bill. He hated every minute of it. So in 1948 at the behest of a friend, Boles decided to hitchhike from Ohio to Los Angeles and enroll in embalming college. His first job laid the foundation for his eventual arrival in Whittier. He worked at Vosque Mortuary on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles.
“God it was awful. We had murders on our front porch. We had a woman raped on our front porch. Right next door was a beer joint. One day they blew it up with a cocktail bomb. I just wanted to get out of there,” Tom Boles said.
So he took a job at Swert-Barber Funeral Home on the corner of Philadelphia Street and Pickering Avenue, where the Mosaic Gardens complex now stands, working for Ruth Barber.
About this time he met his first wife, Barbara Bragg. They were married for 26 years and had four children, one deceased, before she died in 1976. Barbara’s grandfather was one of the original settlers of Whittier. Boles has seven grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
“L.D. Proud helped start the Quaker Church,” Tom Boles said. “His homestead was right where the YMCA is now, on the corner of Pickering and Hadley. “
After a six-year stint in embalming, Boles built wooden shipping boxes for Holmes and Narver, Inc., worked for the Fluor Corp. in purchasing, Honeywell Inc. selling military electronics and the Worthington Corp. selling pumps and cryogenic valves. He later bought businesses selling eyeglass frames and stainless steel kitchen units.
In the early 1970s Tom started his own business, Sun Union Inc., buying and selling companies large and small.
“I was very lucky. I loved sales. I worked hard. I got up early in the morning. Nothing was handed to me. I was the only salesman I know who wore a hat, suit and a tie. The receptionist would always remember the guy who was wearing the hat,” he said.
“I’ve had a lot of jobs,” he said.
Virginia Boles was born at Murphy Memorial Hospital in Whittier, is on the “Y’ Prayer Breakfast committee and helped plan the new ‘Y’ building on Hadley Street following the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake. But that’s just the tip of her volunteerism iceberg.
Following high school, Virginia attended UC Berkeley and graduated with a degree in dental hygiene. She worked for a plethora of dentists before devoting her time to giving that time away for worthy causes.
She has served as chairman of the Hathaway Museum board in Santa Fe Springs and is on the board of the Whittier Historical Museum, which her mother, Leona, helped found. The Leona Myer gift shop inside the museum on Newlin Avenue is named after Virginia’s mother, who attended a one-room schoolhouse, the Little Lake Schoolhouse, in Santa Fe Springs. Virginia is also a driving force behind the Assistance League of Whittier.
“When my mother passed away in 1986, I took some time off from each of the (dentist) offices and the more I took off, the more I liked it,” Virginia said. That’s where her volunteerism kicked into overdrive.
“I guess it was then that I started doing a lot of volunteer work in Whittier,” Virginia said. “I joined the Assistance League and the PEO (Philanthropic Educational Association) and the ‘Y’ board and I became involved in the (Whittier Historical Society) museum and several other things. So from 1987 to now it’s just been doing volunteer work and helping the community advance.
“I hope I’ve been able to do some good,” she said. “I enjoy volunteer work and it keeps me busy. I have piles of papers everywhere.”
Like mother, like daughter.
“My mother used to say she wished she had more money so she could give it away,” Virginia said. “She did a lot of good.”
Tom was the last dental patient of the day when he first asked Virginia out on a date.
“I was kinda lonesome so I asked her if she’d like to go out and have a drink. She said, ‘I don’t drink.’ So let’s go have a cup of coffee. ‘I don’t drink coffee.’ I was reaching for something. So I said let’s go have a dish of ice cream. And she said ‘yes.’
“So we went to have a dish of ice cream and I was taken by everything. She was world-traveled. She’d been to every continent in the world. Interesting to talk to,” Tom said of Virginia.
“That one dish of ice cream led to another dish of ice cream. Then we went to Maldonado’s in Pasadena. Then finally one day I said ‘I think we ought to get married.’ And she said, ‘OK.’”
“I lived on Ocean View Avenue,” Virginia recalled. “I rented an apartment that belonged to the Kirkwoods of the Kirkwood Tire Company on Greenleaf. He asked me and I said yes. It just developed from there and here we are 33 years later.”
Following a successful career in business, what finally brought Tom Boles to the Lord?
“I had a calling,” he said. “I was 68 years old. It happened one night. I was upstairs, sleeping in bed, I heard this voice, ‘go back to school to prepare yourself and follow Me.’ I got to thinking that that must be God talking to me. The Lord telling me to go back to school. Do something. Follow Me.”
The next morning Boles called Fuller Seminary in Pasadena. He got in his car and drove to Pasadena. Even without the prerequisite college degree, the enigmatic Boles talked his way into the master’s program.
He graduated with his master’s in theology in 2000 while at the same time earning a bachelor’s degree from Trinity College online. The lifelong learner went on to get his doctorate in ministry from Trinity and earned a Ph.D. in theological studies from Edinberg Seminary in Cleveland. He currently is studying the Dead Sea Scrolls, the history of Judaism, the New Testament and comparative religions online through North Carolina University.
Yet for all his love for learning, Tom Boles’ enduring fascination remains with Virginia.
“I couldn’t live without her,” Tom said.
“And versa-visa,” Virginia quipped.
“Like he says, you dirty the clothes and I wash them. I cook the dinner and he eats it.”
Amen to that.
Tim Traeger is a Whittier resident and former editor of the Whittier Daily News. Write to him at email@example.com or call 626-646-7352.