“I’m just grateful to my Heavenly Father for all the blessings he’s showered down on me, and if I can help lift people with the years I have left, I’ll be very grateful.”
[Author’s note: I first met Tom Thorkelson in the early 1990s. I was a career agent with the Mass Mutual Agency in Denver. Tom was the General Agent for Mass Mutual in Orange County, California, while also personally selling prodigious amounts of life, disability, and annuity products, and serving his callings in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Tom came to speak at our agency. I was impressed with Tom’s evangelical zeal regarding his faith, his career, and his company. His high level of client-focused business ethics and his mission to improve his clients’ lives for the better were also evident. I feel honored to have been able to visit with him again 30 years later. His energy and zest for life remain contagious.]
Tom served as a Marine aviator/instructor during the Korean War. He flew fighter jets and trained pilots in Pensacola, Florida. He humbly emphasizes that he was never under enemy fire. He still demonstrates an intensely focused energy that I have observed in other former fighter pilots.
Today Tom is 89. He is a survivor of three kinds of cancer (prostate 10 years ago, lymphoma and bladder 2 years ago). He is presently cancer-free. Pat, his wife of 49 years, passed away in early 2003. Together Tom and Pat raised 8 natural and contributed to the raising of 5 Native American children. He has been married to his second wife, the former Sheila O’Leary, for 18 years. Tom has over 150 living descendants. His second great-great-grandchild and 3 more great-grandchildren were added to the exponentially expanding tribe in one recent week. He and Sheila watch a two-year-old grandson from Sheila’s side of their blended family several days a week. They have installed the Marine Corp Hymn as the ringtone on Sheila’s phone. When her phone rings this grandson sings along while running around the house with a Marine Corp flag. He knows all the words. Once a Marine, always a Marine.
When I met Tom in the 1990s, he spent about 70% of his waking hours working and 30% on family and church callings. Today he estimates he spends 30% of his time at work, 30% in volunteer service to his church, and 40% with family. His work time is focused on serving his clients and their extended families. Many of his clients have worked with him for 50 or 60 years.
In the LDS church most callings (volunteer roles in the church) run for 5 or 10 years. Back in the 1970s, Tom served for many years as the bishop of his ward. A bishop’s volunteer duties are like those of a paid head pastor of a 500-to-700-member faith community. Tom reports he spent 32 hours a week serving a ward (congregation) with 7 different language groups.
Today, Tom is very unusual for his church: He has volunteered for more than 37 years in this one calling, as the Director of Interfaith Relations for Orange County for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Prior to that calling, he served as President of the Orange County Region of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In these roles, he has built relationships of cooperation and trust with leaders of the Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Jewish, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Muslim, Zoroastrian and other religious communities.
For two years Tom has been working with the man who will be his interfaith successor when he dies. “Bridges won’t have to be built again. Trust is not something you gather quickly. We are making some major impact to help people respect those not of our faith even though they might disagree theologically. We can still communicate, work together: we can serve the needy, the homeless, those who are prison-bound, the widows, the orphans, those caught up in human trafficking — all these issues. Why do religious groups need to be in conflict, saying ‘My truth is better than your truth, therefore we can’t work together’? Instead of that, we must work together and solve problems facing our citizens!”
Tom goes on “In the political arena, somehow we need to get back to working together…compromise is now a dirty word. We need to rebuild relationships. When Teddy Kennedy divorced and remarried, US Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican was his best man! It wasn’t a political stunt: It was a relationship that was that deep! Today they would have been drummed out of the corps. I am hoping, praying, for a time that America can return to civility, when we can communicate with each other without being divisive. These things warm my heart.”
Tom remains physically active to maintain his health and energy. Before cancer took his energy down a notch two years ago, he played racquetball several times a week. Today he swims 20–30 laps a day. He eats two meals a day. Breakfast is a 32-ounce yogurt smoothy with fruits, veggies, a raw egg, yeast, and other ingredients. Dinner is healthy as well. He is back to his Marine Corps weight.
Regarding his career as a financial planner and life insurance salesperson, Tom says “One of the reasons I’m living well and healthfully is because every day I wake up and I know I’m going to have meetings with my clients. Some have been clients for 50 or 60 years, and their kids and their grandkids, and new people too, and they energize my life and make me feel like I’m meaningful and I just feel like I’m so vital. It makes me feel excited every day, instead of wondering if I’m going to just hang around.”
“I truly, down deep in my heart, believe life insurance sales is a calling. You’re not dealing with greed: You’re dealing with love, and sometimes you’re appealing to a higher ethical motivation. You’re appealing to something that isn’t selfish. You’re not thinking about yourself. You’re thinking of others, caring for others. To me, it’s a profession related to love, and it fits like a glove for me. I tell Sheila, ‘Honey, I love what I do.’. It thrills me when I have somebody who I haven’t met before, who really doesn’t want to talk to me, and who’s not particularly interested in buying anything or being motivated to do something, and at the end of my visit with them, I can see that they have been swept up. It’s a challenge and a thrill and I say to myself when it’s over ‘This fits! It’s life, living to its very best. I can have an impact on somebody, and I know I can affect them for good.’”
“It [insurance sales] has been a fun 63 years, and I’m just grateful to my Heavenly Father for all the blessings he’s showered down on me, and if I can help lift people with the years I have left, I’ll be very grateful.”
Do you know someone who is working or volunteering past age 67? I would love to tell their story!