Canterbury, Classrooms and Coffee

By Kevin Tankersley

A conversation with iconic Baylor professor Dr. Tom Hanks

His Baylor University webpage simply says: Dr. D. Thomas Hanks, professor.

But Tom Hanks is much more than that. He’s been a fixture on the Baylor campus since joining the English department 41 years ago. He’s noted for his sharp dress and his headwear, and he’s enough of a celebrity at a local coffee shop that he had a drink named after him.

More importantly, however, are the lives he’s influenced, as evidenced by the more than 100 comments on his Facebook page in reaction to his retirement announcement, and by the rousing ovation he received at his retirement ceremony recently in the Paul and Katy Piper Great Hall at Truett Seminary. He has touched the lives of students in the classroom, during numerous study-abroad trips and in his Friday afternoon coffee talks.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley met with Hanks in his third-floor office in the Carroll Science Hall. It was a student holiday — Diadeloso, the Day of the Bear — yet Hanks still dressed as if he were preparing to give a lecture, complete with jacket and tie but, surprisingly, without a fedora. He apologized for arriving two minutes late.

WACOAN: So you’ve been at Baylor for 41 years?

Hanks: Forty-one? Let’s see, I’m in my 41st right now.

WACOAN: And that was a lovely retirement reception the other day.

Hanks: I so enjoyed that.

WACOAN: When is your last day at Baylor?

Hanks: I’ll be leaving officially as of the last day of July. In actuality, I’ll still be teaching in the Oxford program until the fifth day of August, at which point we come back to the U.S. and I’m officially, officially terminated.

WACOAN: So what, 41 years ago, brought you to Baylor?

Hanks: Well, I had three good [job] possibilities in fact. [One] at the University of Istanbul, and Carole really didn’t want to go there. So the other two possibilities were either Belmont University [or Baylor]. Baylor was the place where I really wanted to go.

WACOAN: Your Ph.D. is from the University of Minnesota, and then your other degrees are from where?

Hanks: The [bachelor’s and master’s degrees are] from Washington University in St. Louis.

WACOAN: What began your connection with Baylor, since none of your degrees are from here?

Hanks: For one thing, Baylor was offering a job. And for another, Baylor has a really good reputation in Springfield, so I was very interested in coming here. In Springfield, Missouri — my hometown — if you’re a Baptist and you lead a good life, you die, you go to Baylor. You’ve heard me say that before, I think.

My parents and especially my surviving grandfather at the time was just elated. He was a Baptist minister and stayed that until the minute of his death. He was just very pleased that I was going to, what he called, ‘our Baptist university.’

WACOAN: What has kept you here all these years?

Hanks: Part of it, this is an awfully Baylor answer, but we found a church. I found a church in our first year because I came down without Carole. She was finishing a degree in Minnesota. That first year I found a church that I really liked, Lake Shore Baptist, and I continue to really like it. It does what is just right for me in the way of a church.

And then I really like our students. They’re a good bunch. And I’ve got some good colleagues here, and I’ve managed to find some things I thought I could do reasonably well and I enjoy doing, which I did and do. So, I just kept on.

WACOAN: The things you found you enjoy and do reasonably well, what are those?

Hanks: The best thing I do — you know this because you’ve seen me trying to do it — is to introduce a topic or a question then say, ‘Well, what do you think about that, Tank?’ And find out what you thought and look across the way and say, ‘Well, other Kevin, what do you think about that?’ And get two people in dialogue sharing ideas.

And what often occurred as we were doing this, was coming up with a better one as a result of rubbing the two together. A little friction produces fire.

WACOAN: I read one way you stress the importance of a classwide discussion among your students is a beach ball. And so you just throw the beach ball around and say, ‘Isn’t this much more fun when we all play a part?’

Hanks: I do set it up. The first thing I do is walk in before we’ve actually started class and go to a student on the first row and say, ‘Would you please — and they always look at me a little oddly — please take this beach ball and throw it up here when I ask for it?’

We were at that time in Hankamer 101, the big class, and it was a raised stage. And after a couple minutes in we were introducing ourselves, the faculty, about eight of us at that time, and I would walk to the front of the stage and say, ‘Would you please give me the beach ball now?’ And they would walk up and give it to me, still not sure of what’s going on. The students are obedient, bless their hearts.

And I’d say ‘Well, thank you. Now here, let me give it back to you.’ The student would sit down. Then I said, ‘Well, wasn’t that interesting?’ Then everyone would look at me. Then I said, ‘Well, you’re right, of course. It’s not very interesting. Let’s see what might be more interesting.’

Looking back at my student colleague, I would say, ‘Would you please toss that back over your shoulders when I give you the word? Now here’s the deal for the rest of you. [The ball] is an idea. I’ve already told you that. Jenny, the student, has had an idea, and I had Jenny’s idea for a while and I gave it back to Jenny. Not a whole lot happened. Let’s spread this idea around. Your part in this is to whack that beach ball to where some other students are so they can whack it back and we can all share and develop an idea.’

Then it goes on for about a minute, maybe two minutes, and they get very much into the spirit of things. And remember, they’re only three months removed from high school. And after that I talk to them: ‘Now this illustrates the difference between sharing ideas and developing them together and, passing an idea from me to you, from any of us, to you.’ And they get it right off.

I’m getting notes from students now that I’m retiring, some of them from back in the ’90s saying, ‘I remember that beach ball.’

WACOAN: You said the big class. What’s the big class?

Hanks: Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, about 180 students. We meet in class about once a week. We meet in small groups, about 18 people, one or sometimes two times a week.

“There’s only a few teachers in your lifetime who really inspire you. He would be in that category, not just for me, but those that went before me and many who followed. His joyful presence and walking down Fountain Mall with a smile, he was a professor who knew who you were and engaged you.”
— Eric Abercrombie, senior manager of communications and public affairs at Georgia-Pacific in Atlanta, who changed his major to English after attending Hanks’ English 1301 class, his first class on his first day of college

WACOAN: You also said, ‘Students, bless their hearts they’re obedient.’ How have you seen students change over your time here?

Hanks: I don’t think I’ve been asked that, and truth be told it’s in the most basic ways: standards.

Female students used to come in wearing shorts and say, ‘Dr. Hanks, I apologize for the shorts. I had gym class, and I didn’t have time to change.’ That was just the first three or five years. I got here first in ’76. They quit worrying about it, and everyone wore shorts. The newest fashion noted is tights, I think.

So the standards of dress have varied for women, and pretty much the same thing for men. T-shirts and either slacks or jeans. Often shorts, very often shorts, especially if they’re Texans and their goal is to wear shorts year-round and never admit when it gets cold.

WACOAN: Speaking of standards of dress, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you not in slacks, a shirt, tie and jacket.

Hanks: [Laughs] When I started this job, back at Washington U, when I was doing my first graduate teaching thing, I was massively uncertain of myself. So I thought, ‘Well, I could at least look the part.’ Fake it until you can make it.

So I put on my only suit, a heavy wool suit, painful in the summer, went to class and surely enough, I looked like a faculty member with a suit and tie. I got in the habit. I decided it gave me a place to stand when greeting students, so I’ve been doing it ever since.

WACOAN: And when did you start wearing hats?

Hanks: Oh, gosh. I think I started that way back at Washington U. And then I was in the Air Force and, of course, you had to wear a hat outdoors when you were in uniform. I don’t really remember when I started that. It’s been a long time.

WACOAN: Would you describe your hats as fedoras or is there a better description of your hats?

Hanks: I try for fedoras, ’cause I really like ’em. Sometimes, I wear what gets called a trilby, which is basically a fedora with a shorter brim, and that’s about it. Those are the ones I like.

WACOAN: After the Summer Faculty Institute there was a reception at your house and we saw, I believe in the hallway, your hat collection. How many hats do you have? Do you know?

Hanks: I’m not real sure, Tank. Probably over 30. That’s a little much really. I’ll find a new hat and think, ‘I don’t really need that,’ but other times I find it and think, ‘I don’t need that one either, but I want it.’

WACOAN: OK. When you moved to Waco, where was Carole finishing her degree?

Hanks: At Minnesota. She was getting her master’s in public health.

WACOAN: And after she joined you the next year, how has she spent her 41 years in Waco?

Hanks: She started with the Waco-McLennan County Health Department. After a while she decided she’d like to do more things with the policy of the health department, but she didn’t have the credentials and no one quite knew what do with a nurse practitioner. And since she had a master’s but not a doctorate, the doctorate folks were giving the direction to the department. So after thinking about it for a while, she went down to the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston and spent a couple of years getting her doctorate in public health.

WACOAN: And how long have y’all been married?

Hanks: Fifty-one years and three weeks this past Sunday.

WACOAN: And you have two children?

Hanks: One daughter, one son. Thomas is in his 30s. He’s down at Austin getting his doctorate in English literature. And Kirsten is not in her 30s, and she’s the older. She helped raise Thomas. He thought he had three parents.

WACOAN: Over the past 41 years, what has been your favorite class to teach?

Hanks: Oh, that’s a tough one. The most useful class I’ve taught has always been the writing class because it’s not all that hard to write once you get a couple of basic concepts down about your audience in your mind.

Our students come to it without any real idea of audience. You’re a writer. You know that business of writing. If you’re writing with some highfalutin idea of, ‘Let’s get as many syllables out there as possible,’ no one is going to read you. Helping them learn that and helping them learn to look at it from the point of view of the audience, makes such a difference.

The most fun class is clearly the Classics of Children’s Literature.

WACOAN: What books do you talk about in there?

Hanks: [‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’]. Aesop’s Fables. We look at the Mother Goose poems. We make our way then to Alice and look at ‘The Chronicles of Narnia.’ We read three of those. We often look at some [J.R.R.] Tolkien. We can’t read all three of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ volumes because it would just take up most of the semester. We look at ‘[The Adventures of] Tom Sawyer.’ I always vacillate between that and [‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’]. ‘Grimms’ Fairy Tales.’

WACOAN: What makes that your most fun class?

Hanks: That’s where students have the most fun. This last semester, the most lively class I’ve ever had, I think, and I’ve had a lot of lively classes.

WACOAN: So this summer you’re doing study abroad in Oxford again?

Hanks: Yes.

WACOAN: How many study abroad trips have you done? Do you know?

Hanks: I don’t really know, but it’s 10 or more since we got here.

WACOAN: What do you enjoy about the study abroad program with your students?

Hanks: Mostly, watching the way the students react to this wholly new thing. Standing on the wall of the city of Canterbury. It’s a reconstructed medieval wall, but it’s pretty true to the original wall.

Standing on that wall and telling them the story of how Gregory, Pope Gregory the Great, has sent Augustine to England in 597 to re-Christianize the place. Christianity had soon died after the Romans had left, roughly 450. How he came and persuaded King Ethelbert that really, we’re not going to do any harm. And by that time Ethelbert’s wife was a Christian. He had married a French woman, a noble, who was a Christian. So, he was not negatively inclined. It’s a good story.

WACOAN: I read on your Facebook page, when you talked about your retirement, one of your study abroad students said something about having the chance to experience with you, I believe on a train, you got to view something for the very first time that you had studied…

Hanks: Yeah, that was in Canterbury.

WACOAN: Tell me about that experience.

Hanks: There’s a train from London down to Canterbury and we were on the fast train that day, so it took us about an hour and 10 minutes to get from London to Canterbury. Walking, it took me four days, at 18 miles a day.

WACOAN: You walked from London to Canterbury?

Hanks: Yes. But, not at that point. This was my first trip to Canterbury. So I was just tickle-skinny. You see the spire of the cathedral first, then you see the old castle, then you see the walls and the railroad comes in just about 20 yards from the walls and then you just walk across the street and up on the wall and all across the city and we did.

WACOAN: What made that moment so special, riding in on the train for the first time?

Hanks: I had thought a great deal of [poet Geoffrey] Chaucer down through the years. I think he’s just a great writer. I’m not the first to think that, and surely not the last. And I had talked about Canterbury and Canterbury Cathedral and had my minister, Richard Groves, say, ‘You can go to Canterbury as a tourist, but when you walk into the cathedral, you become a pilgrim.’ So, I was all set up to think of this as a really major experience, and I was just feeling like I had been carbonated all the way through that visit.

WACOAN: What year was that? Do you remember?

Hanks: I don’t. When would it have been? It was way back. First time I went to England was ’78 or ’79 with a student group. I did it, at first, almost every year, and lately more like every four years or so. It was either the late ’70s or early ’80s.

WACOAN: Tell me about the experience walking from London to Canterbury. What inspired that walk?

Hanks: A friend of mine sent me a note from St. Martin’s, the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Field, in London. And the note said they were asking people to pledge a certain amount or get pledges and then they could take part in the pilgrimage from St. Martin-in-the-Field to Canterbury and that appealed to me just to no end. So, I wrote to them that I’d like to do that and they wrote back saying, ‘Fine. Come ahead.’ And I did.

I was not at all prepared for 72 miles of hiking. I took the thin daily socks that I was wearing at the time and I took along reasonably good walking shoes, but not very, and I got blisters like you wouldn’t believe. When I got home, I went to Springfield to visit my brother and my family, and when I got there hobbled off the plane, my brother came running up saying, ‘Tom, what’s wrong?’

But, I thoroughly enjoyed it, even when I was most hurting. It was a really good time. Christianity is important to me, so the pilgrimage idea was important too.

WACOAN: Where all have you gone on study abroad trips?

Hanks: They mostly have ended up in England, but those programs have taken us to Rome, several times to Florence. Rome and Florence are the standouts. Where else in Italy? Other places in Italy, kind of a moving feast across Italy. Siena, that was great.

WACOAN: Also on your Facebook post, some people mentioned Friday coffee talks. What are those?

Hanks: They don’t have them anymore because Carole pointed out we could go down on Friday evenings to visit with our grandchildren if I weren’t in Common Grounds so long, and she was right, of course. It was obvious that this was important, both to her and to me, so I quit doing that.

But for about eight years, I would tell my classes I’d get together over at Common Grounds with anyone who wants to come, and we’d just talk. And I still have my folders of Friday talks. There’s a lot of stuff in there. I would introduce a topic and then get back out of the way of the students. It’s a wonderful picture of how they interact.

WACOAN: What were some of the topics you brought up on coffee talks?

Hanks: Often they were current events. I remember we had one talk I thoroughly enjoyed about the simple fact that women were now, at that time on campus, six-to-four. Six women for every four men. And across the nation, it’s six-to-four, according to The New York Times back in whenever this was.

And I thought that could have interesting repercussions. I didn’t want to put it this way because I thought it might insult the women, but I wondered who are those women going to marry? Most of them are going to want college-educated men, but there are only four for every six of them. How’s that going to affect business? How will that affect the family?

So I raised that and they had really interesting things to say, I thought. The women, young women who are mostly thinking, ‘I will do a career before I do family,’ most of them were not ideally discouraged or troubled because that was so far in the distance that they didn’t think about it.

We talked about Christianity from time to time, talked about the death penalty, talked about death with dignity, a lot of possibilities. Feminism. About gay, lesbian and gender roles and sexuality. Not much on that because I don’t know anything much as an expert, except I can’t claim to be an expert.

“I am so grateful to Dr. Hanks for his generous mentorship for so long. His comments on my very first honors program paper, back in 2001, were the beginning of his powerful influence on my own development as an honors professor. At every phase of my development, he has been a fount of never-ending goodwill that I have tried to model. Before I interviewed for this dream job as a professor of psychology and honors at the University of Maine — a full 10 years after that first honors paper with Dr. Hanks — he sat with me at Common Grounds to give me advice and share wisdom that carried me through that interview and into the chance to share some portion of his amazing legacy with a whole new generation of students here in Maine.”
— Dr. Jordan LaBouff, assistant professor of psychology and honors at the University of Maine

WACOAN: Don’t you have a drink named after you at Common Grounds?

Hanks: Yeah, yeah. They called it, at first, the Tom Hanks special, and they put a little Dr. in front of it because people were assuming it had to do with the film personality, whom I greatly admire.

WACOAN: What was the drink, do you remember?

Hanks: I do. I always asked for a huge cappuccino in a huge cup and Jill Mashburn [Barrett], who was the first owner, just decided that was kind of cute, so, she started saying, ‘You want the special?’ So, I started saying, ‘OK.’ It got that name and it was up that way for a long time.

They don’t remember it now. I quit doing Friday coffee, and I started spending some of my time at the [Starbucks in Moody] library so I could kill two birds with one cup that way.

“He was a fixture at Common Grounds. He got a drink named after him because he came in every afternoon and ordered a certain drink. Always the same. It was basically a latte in a big mug, with foam on top. He’s just so charming. He always had his hat on and took it off when he came in, and he would kind of hold court in there. We all just really loved him.”
— Jill Mashburn Barrett, founder of Common Grounds. She was a student in Hanks’ class and was part of one of his Baylor in the British Isles study abroad programs.

WACOAN: And you have, or had, a motorcycle?

Hanks: Have. I had a debate about bringing it today, but I just didn’t have time. I didn’t want to be duly late for you. I still walked in two minutes late.

WACOAN: It’s a red trike, right?

Hanks: Yeah.

WACOAN: How long have you been riding it?

Hanks: I think since about ’87. Started with a two-wheeler, then traded the old two-wheeler for a new, red two-wheeler. They weigh 800 pounds, and I could get it up pretty, well, clumsily, for the first several years, but about five to eight years ago I had to wait for by-passers to ask if they could help me get it up. When I was out riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway, for example, it was hard to find a by-passer. So I decided I better go for three wheels.

WACOAN: Your trike is a Honda, right?

Hanks: Yep. They were all Hondas.

WACOAN: What do you like about riding?

Hanks: Being right out there in the middle of the air, I like that a lot. It’s such a cliché, but it’s a feeling of freedom and being part of what’s around you instead of looking at it in a detached kind of way.

It is not always a delightful feeling. I’ve gotten caught in one snowstorm, which blinded me because my faceplate got covered. I have been caught in several rainstorms, some of which blinded me also. It was just falling so fast.

WACOAN: I got caught in a rainstorm on my bike once, and that wasn’t any fun. But as soon as you got past the rainstorm, you dry off pretty quickly.

Hanks: Yep.

WACOAN: Then I had a bee in my helmet once, so I could not get pulled over and get my helmet off quickly enough. I didn’t get stung, but I was freaking out a bit.

Hanks: Oh, I understand that. Gosh, I’ve never had that happen.

WACOAN: OK. This might be a tough one. Out of your time here, can you name your single favorite experience at Baylor?

Hanks: Yes, when students will tell me, ‘Yeah, we really all got to get to know each other in that class.’ And I still see people on campus whose names I can remember.

And I am delighted when students say that and I always get kind of a secret thrill out of it because they never realize that is my No. 1 goal in class, that they learn each other’s names. I stole a list from [the educational psychologist] Jerome Bruner, who is my inspiration, for the theory of teaching. Bruner says one of the things that helps people to want to learn is what he calls, a well of social reciprocity, and I’ve been trying to weave that web, do my part of it. Once you give students a strand, they build webs in the way and you saw it in Summer Faculty Institute. The faculty members build webs as well.

“When I was an undergrad, Dr. Hanks treated me with collegial respect. From him I learned that students will perform best when great things are expected of them — but to expect great things you have to treat them as if they are capable of that.”
— Dr. M. Elizabeth Thorpe, assistant professor of communication at The College at Brockport, State University of New York

WACOAN: Summer Faculty Institute is a month-long teaching institute for faculty members here at Baylor. How long have you been involved in that?

Hanks: I started in the ’70s. I took it when it was first offered on campus, which would have been ’78 or ’79. I would have been working my way toward tenure. I was still on my way to tenure, or so I hoped, when they asked me. I’d been doing it for over 30 years and so I stepped out of it for a couple of years. Folks determined that they’d like to turn it more toward research and less toward teaching and shorten it and say the goal was to turn out a paper. And I’m sure that was laudable, but it just wasn’t something I was interested in leading, so I stepped out for a while.

WACOAN: What kept you involved for so long? That’s a long time to do something every summer.

Hanks: It’s such fun and you get to meet a lot of your colleagues and quite a few, I think, learn useful skills that lead to survival. This sounds awfully Baylor again, but it all leads back to the students. I am persuaded that someone who focuses on research and pays no attention to the students or to his colleagues, or her colleagues — and we have had such people — cannot lead a really happy life.

“Tom Hanks was the first faculty member I met outside of philosophy when I came to Baylor 18 years ago. He embraced and mentored me, taught with me, encouraged me and advocated for me. I will be eternally grateful for his model of a life well-lived, professionally and personally. Tom makes mentoring faculty look easy — it isn’t. That’s one of his exceptional gifts. His genuine joy in enabling others to flourish inspires me every day. It’s an end of an era in so many ways. Generations of faculty, staff, and students owe their love of Baylor to Tom. I am one of them.”
— Dr. Lenore Wright, director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning and associate professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at Baylor. She and Hanks co-led the Summer Faculty Institute for many years.

WACOAN: What do you have planned for your last class this semester?

Hanks: Hm. Probably the same thing as usual. Ask them to evaluate the class. Tell them my evaluation of them, which is generally, ‘You’re a good bunch,’ and a statement about, ‘Oh you’ve shown me you can do more than you normally do,’ because they always show me that and they always can.

The most frustrating part of teaching anywhere is everyone I know is capable of fulfilling a lot more potential than they or I do. It frustrates that about me too. I know my students do not know. This sounds so lecture-y, but the students just don’t know the riches they have within them. They’re prone to think ‘I’m just one guy’ or ‘I’m just one gal’ and that’s even more fatal because they’re not used to thinking well of themselves, their potential, still.

WACOAN: You’ve been deemed a Master Teacher and a Collins Outstanding Professor. What did those honors mean to you?

Hanks: They really said to me, ‘You’re doing it right.’ Remember, I started this thing not at all sure I’d measure up. When I went back for the doctorate in 1970, I wasn’t at all sure I could do it. When I came to Baylor for the first year, I thought, ‘Oh, gosh. I don’t know this. I’m not sure I can do this.’

One of my students, Carol Ann Johnston, she went to Harvard, once said to me — and it was in my second year of Baylor, maybe my third — she said, ‘It’s almost as if you were afraid of us.’ I thought, ‘Well, what a penetrating observation.’

WACOAN: You said you put the suit on, your heavy wool suit, because of massive uncertainty about yourself. When did you rid yourself of that uncertainty?

Hanks: The school gave me a teaching award back in the ’80s. I think it was Outstanding Faculty Member for Teaching, and I was just so pleased with that. I was recommended for it, I later learned, by a young woman student of mine who comes to us from Arizona. And that kind of recognition just really bolstered me in feeling like I was doing reasonably well with what I knew I enjoyed.

“Tom Hanks is in many ways the beating heart of teaching at Baylor. His passion for the classroom, his thoughtful use of active learning, and his interaction with so many of us about our own teaching has raised the quality of instruction across the campus. Even though he’ll be retiring, in a very real way he’ll be stepping into dozens of classrooms every semester for years to come.”
— Dr. Greg Garrett, professor of English at Baylor, critic, theologian and author of numerous books and hundreds of short stories, essays and scholarly articles

WACOAN: What have you liked about Lakeshore Baptist Church enough to stick with one church for your entire time in Waco?

Hanks: On NPR this morning, I heard Garrison Keillor and he was sponsored by among others, the Baylor English department and Lakeshore Baptist Church. And Lakeshore, the little blurb said, is a church with open hands, open hearts and open minds.

I was raised in churches that really didn’t have open minds. They might have open hearts; they frequently do. They might have open hands; they often did — missions, contributions and so on. But open minds were not really familiar to me from my church experience.

WACOAN: What denomination was this?

Hanks: Southern Baptist. I’m still very much Baptist. I think Baptists are very good, but when the Southern Baptists decided that women really weren’t on a direct line to God, I decided they had gone astray. So, I had walked away.

WACOAN: Your church had a female pastor for years in Dorisanne Cooper, and now the pastor is Kyndall Rae Rothaus. And you said you walked away from the Southern Baptist tradition over differences of opinion about women in ministry. What led you toward that way of thinking?

Hanks: Well, that was really easy. You probably know, recall yourself, that Southern Baptists really emphasize the Bible. When I grew up I was doing sword drill, making my way through the Bible, realizing you split it right here for Psalms, split it over here for something else and so forth. And Paul, several times, points out that women were helpful to him in his missionary work and it was incontrovertible that God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus and Jesus was a fairly important guy, at least in my thinking. And my mom, oh gosh my mom, she was always willing to look at a new idea. Always willing.

I was raised in a very racist part of Missouri. It was just the way things were during World War II years. Toward the end of WWII, Dad got a second job and more money began to come in and mom employed a black woman, Nina Coker, to come do the housework. When Nina first came there, she was very quiet. I remember her first visit. She walked in and said, ‘Mrs. Hanks, I’m Nina Coker. How can I help you ma’am?’ And Mom said, ‘Well, the first thing you can do is just sit down with me and have a cup of coffee and let’s talk over what I need.’ And Nina was very quiet for a moment and then said, ’Yes, ma’am. I’d like that.’

Mom tried to get her to call her June. Nina never would. But, they grew to where they were just really comfortable with each other. Nina was always a little cautious, but she started bringing her daughter, who was a really nice young woman. I would really like to know what happened to her, she’s my age. Her daughter had comic books I didn’t have so we would trade and she was fun to play with. [Nina] was a wonderful woman.

“Week after week, year after year around the Lake Shore College Class Sunday School table Tom Hanks prompts students to examine their faith, their beliefs, their doubts, their wonderings in order to deepen and broaden their journeys of faith. He encourages them to trust that their faith will grow if they water and seed it with questions and challenges while staying committed to the journey itself. It’s hard to say if Tom is more gifted at listening or asking questions. He does both so well. His intellect, his commitment and his example, along with his listening and questions were great gifts to me as a pastor and have been for all of Lake Shore’s pastors. His presence itself anchors many a weekly routine. He would walk in each Sunday morning with breakfast for his class, then during worship would be relied upon in the choir loft (and sometimes the pulpit). He would be there at Wednesday night supper and at choir practice. And I’m not sure anyone ever took better minutes for church business meetings.”
— Dorisanne Cooper, senior minister at Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, and senior pastor at Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco from 2001 to 2013

WACOAN: So, back to your retirement. What are your plans after you leave Baylor?

Hanks: I really enjoy [Sir Thomas] Malory, his ‘Le Morte d’Arthur,’ the story of [King] Arthur and Lancelot and Guinevere. I really enjoy that, and I really enjoy writing about it.

I like going to conferences, which I’ll have to do on my own dime after this coming May. I like going to conferences and talking with other people about Malory. It’s a great conversation. I like researching and writing about Malory.

WACOAN: What are you reading right now?

Hanks: I’m bouncing between three different things. I’ve just gotten a Neil Gaiman book. I’m looking at an alternate historical novel about the Roman days, Belisarius and the Ro man Empire and a historically made-up Indian empire and that is being a kick. I read it actually two other times and I’m reading it again. It’s a six-volume series, so it keeps me happy for a long time.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know?

Hanks: The most important thing in my life — and sometimes it bothers me because I feel like Christianity should be — but the most important thing in my life, for the past 51 years has been Carole. Never been so happy as I have been with Carole. I have never felt so stimulated as when she says, ‘No, I don’t think that’s right.’

For example, when we were at Minnesota, I got up early one morning, getting ready to fix breakfast ’cause I was the breakfast fixer, and the floor in the kitchen was sticky. I left a really snotty note about how she hadn’t washed the floor, and I left early and ate out for breakfast, which we couldn’t really afford as starving graduate students. [I] came home prepared to magnanimously forgive her, and Carole’s response — we had been married, gosh, four years — her response was, ‘Why didn’t you mop it?’

I realized I had never thought of that. I was raised in a very traditional family. Dad was pretty much the bull of the herd and mom was a traditional wife, in spite of her nonracist qualities, and I had never realized, ‘Yeah, I could [mop the floor].’

Shortly after that her mom got us a book called ‘The Open Marriage,’ parts of that I thought were just wacky, but parts of it were about sharing the domestic things as well. I started doing it, and for example, when she was in Memphis for five years, I kept the kids. She was working on a research project which has just blossomed. It was called the New Mothers Project Memphis. She really wanted to go. Kirsten and I urged her to go. Thomas wasn’t old enough to urge her. He was about 5, I think.

WACOAN: How old was Kirsten?

Hanks: When Thomas was born she was 12, so she was 12 years elder.

WACOAN: She was 17. And Carole was in Memphis for five years. How did you manage?

Hanks: I was not worried about Kirsten. I was worried that Thomas would die and it would be my fault. That was my biggest worry, and he didn’t.

Carole and I spent a lot of time on the phone, and I knew that this was just a central part of her research, a central part of her interest, a central part of who she was, and that she just really needed to do this. And if I couldn’t support in her that, I was smaller than I wanted to think I was.

All told, in our 51 years of marriage, we’ve since spent 11 years and change apart.


Hanks: So about 20 percent of our time. About 200 miles at least. About two years down at the University of Texas Health Science Center. The big stretch was that five years, and then there was that one year where she remained up there and I was here. I forgot just where the other years were. Most of it came in month-long blocks. The five years was the longest.

WACOAN: And while she was gone, how were your domestic skills?

Hanks: Well, they got better, and Kirsten helped. We were living in a fairly small place, wasn’t that hard to keep it up. It was a townhouse over in Savannah Court. But that’s the biggie — Carole has really helped me grow. She’s been a place, she’s been the center. These are all such clichés, but they’re all so true. She’s been the center of my life.