May 10, 2012
Tom Hardy, a scion of a Prairie family who was also an aeronautical engineer, fighter pilot, sailor, farmer, real estate broker, glider pilot and devotee of Kipling, died Wednesday. He was 93.
A courtly man with impeccable manners, Hardy’s friends remember his unslakable thirst for adventure, restless independence and inquisitive mind.
More often than not Tom Hardy’s exploits had their roots in the clouds, where he spent as much time as possible in his Cessna 150, or soaring in his glider, an activity he began in the ’40s after the war and continued until three weeks ago when he flew his motorized Glaser-Dirks DG-400 from Columbus to Starkville.
In the intervening years Hardy fathered two children, Sallie and Will, read books — “He never watched TV unless we turned on the news,” remembers his daughter — and spent as much time as he could on the seas or in the skies.
Graduating from Mississippi State University in 1939 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Hardy went to work for Pratt and Whitney, a Connecticut-based manufacturer of aircraft engines. When the U.S. entered WWII two years later, Hardy’s employer obtained an exemption for his young engineer from Mississippi, telling him he was more valuable to his country where he was. The siren call of the skies was too strong, and Hardy joined the Marines, became a pilot and, in combat over the Pacific, is credited with shooting down three Japanese planes.
Tom Hardy spent his early years at Oakland Plantation, his ancestral home near Artesia in the Prairie. A mile-long path through the woods connected Oakland and Smith Oaks Plantation, the home of his closest neighbor and childhood friend, Tom Wilburn.
The boys, born two weeks apart, grew up hunting quail, riding horses and playing in the woods. They were roommates at MSU their freshman year.
“He was a thinker,” remembers Wilburn. “Whatever business Tom got into, he was very intense. He was a remarkable man.”
Larry Jones, a Jackson attorney, longtime friend and Hardy admirer, echoed Wilburn’s sentiments.
“I never knew anyone with that kind of integrity,” said Jones. “Tom’s word was as good as steel. I never heard him curse or say anything detrimental about anybody.”
Jones and Hardy regularly exchanged books. Most recently Hardy gave his friend a book on quantum physics he had just finished.
That was six months ago,” said Jones. “I have it right here.”
Books always figured prominently in Hardy’s life.
Thirty years ago, when Charles Scott was courting Sallie Hardy, Scott thought it strange her 60-something-year-old father read Kipling while he ran. Later as he came to know the man who became his father-in-law, reading while running seemed, well, rather normal.
The source of many Hardy stories comes from his taking to the skies in his glider in hopes of making it to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Invariably he would run out of daylight, and the thermals keeping his glider aloft would dissipate, forcing a landing in a soybean field or a wayward landing strip. There he would rely on the kindness of the first stranger he met to get him home or to a nearby bus station.
Once Hardy ran out of sunlight over Enterprise, Ala. According to his son-in-law, Hardy didn’t like to talk on the radio and landed wordlessly at the Enterprise airport. There as he directed his glider to a grassy apron, he was greeted by an angry airport manager.
“The airport manager was a retired colonel Tom taught to fly gliders,” said Scott. “He took him home and put him up for the night. That could happen to no one but Tom.”
Hardy had a tender side.
Sallie Scott recalls two years ago when Sue, her mother and Tom Hardy’s wife of 65 years, was suffering from a broken pelvis.
“Daddy would get in bed with her and recite Kipling to distract her from the pain,” said Scott.
Three weeks ago his family drove Tom Hardy to the Lowndes County Airport. Despite the pain of the advanced stages of liver cancer, he wanted to fly his glider one last time. Hardy had donated it to the Mississippi State University Soaring Club, an organization he helped found. Will would deliver the trailer to Starkville and pick up his father. As anyone who knew him would have predicted, Tom Hardy made the flight without incident.
“He was happiest with a rope in his teeth and wind in his face,” said Will Hardy about his father.
Visitation will be Saturday 1 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church with a memorial service to follow at 2.
Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.