Dr. Thomas Paul Coleman, 98, of Cambridge passed away peacefully on Wednesday, October 21, 2020 at Ecumen in North Branch. He was born April 24, 1922 in Springvale, MN to William and Christine (Judin) Coleman.
He wore flannel shirts all year long and paired them with belted blue jeans and trucker caps. He kept them neat and clean and always looked like he was wearing his best.
He knew everyone and everything – or so it often seemed – and if you asked about a local farm or the life of someone he called friend, he’d tell you more than you could possibly remember. In his library, he kept poetry next to quantum physics and books on history next to books on gardening. He had spears hung on the walls, surgical photos (for after-dinner entertainment), and a freezer full of raspberries to share. He loved his family and farming, and he lived his life as though he was the least interesting thing about it.
He may have been the only one who thought so.
Thomas Paul Coleman was born to the children of Swedish immigrants in Minnesota in the spring of 1922. Raised on a farm that used horses rather than machinery and where Swedish was heard as often as not, he spoke two languages but set aside his schooling to help at home after an accident left his father unable to bear the load alone.
Finishing Cambridge High School at the age of 22, Tom enlisted in 1944 and served on a submarine in the Atlantic for the final year of the second world war. He attended Bethel Junior College (St. Paul, MN) and the University of Minnesota, received his medical degree in 1953, and married Elaine Westlund the following year.
Tom’s family had always been poor, so he and Elaine took his skills and her nursing degree to those like them. For nearly twenty years, they lived in Ethiopia and cared for people who often had nowhere else to go, giving of their time and talents to anyone who needed it. Even now, more than forty years later, the residents who lived next door to one of his clinics remember him and will still share stories of the doctor who entered the seclusion of their leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) and offered aid.
Sent away by revolution in 1975, Tom and Elaine returned to Minnesota and began splitting their time between a career at Cambridge Medical Center and training new doctors in Cameroon, until they finally retired for good in 2004.
Tom Coleman eventually spoke at least four languages and could read several more. He wrote poetry and Swedish-to-English translations, and he always sang grace before meals. He was friends with Minnesota farmers and Cameroonian kings, and he met Haile Selassie I – the last emperor of Ethiopia – in 1958. As an orthopedic surgeon, Tom could have worked anywhere, but he chose to make his home in a country where the hyenas sang him to sleep and baboons owned the wilderness trails. And when his home had to change, he trained up new generations in another land not his own, passing on what he’d learned and holding nothing back.
Tom loved God and he loved people. He never asked for thanks in return, but his name is known in homes around the world today, and his legacy lives on through the lives of everyone he touched – and in a documentary filmed about his life and released in 2017.
Tom leaves behind his wife of nearly 66 years, Elaine of Ecumen North Branch; his children, Judy Peterson of Cambridge, Minnesota, and Bill (Susan Mazze) of Redondo Beach, California; six grandchildren and one step-granddaughter; and five great-grandchildren. He is also survived by his sister Arlene Coleman of Yucaipa, California, as well as many nieces, nephews, and other relatives and friends.
He now celebrates his new life in Heaven with his parents, William and Christine Coleman; his son Eric; his son-in-law John Peterson; his brothers James and Donald, and his sisters Jane Jensen and Marian Anderson.
MEMORIAL SERVICE 2PM, Friday, September 10, 2021 at First Baptist Church in Cambridge. Visitation one hour prior to the service at the church. Private interment at Springvale Baptist Cemetery with Military Honors
In lieu of flowers Memorials are preferred to Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons. www.paacs.net
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Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons
P.O. Box 735262, Dallas TX 75373-5262