Tom Henry Living as a Free Man

Tom Henry Living as a Free Man

Tom Henry, the title character of the book, Tom Henry: Confession of a Killer, was paroled last April. For 8 months he stayed with his sister and her husband in Central Illinois, near where he was born and raised, and where he committed his crime 50 years ago.

It was a community that protested his presence, and he worked diligently to transfer to another community in another state where he was known, not as a murderer, but as a hard-working logger, a husband, a father, a Bible-believing Christian, and a philanthropist. There he would be welcomed.

He got his wish in December and has since been living with his son, Thomas, in a mobile home they are refurbishing on a wooded acreage in southwestern Missouri, right in the hills where he hunted, fished, trapped, and logged during his 13 years as a fugitive.

I finally got the pleasure of visiting Tom Henry in his new milieu last weekend. At 72, he’s starting life afresh. He has re-established relationships with former friends and even with a new “friend,” his parole officer. (Below is a photo of him with Lou Keeling, former McDonald County sheriff, the very lawman who escorted the FBI to where Tom Elliott, nee Henry Hillenbrand, was logging some 35 years ago when he was returned into custody. Lou had said, You’re welcome back in this country when your legal problems get sorted out. )

He was born Henry Hillenbrand and he became Tom Elliott as a fugitive, thus the book title, Tom Henry. Now he is Tom Elliott to friends and neighbors and Henry Hillenbrand to his parole officer and Social Security. So, as senility approaches, his task is to keep his two identities straight.

Fortunately, he’s nowhere near senility yet and, hopefully, he won’t be for many years to come. His son supplied him with a pickup – 20 years old, stick shift, 6 cylinder, single cab – “couldn’t be more perfect,” he says. He hasn’t yet got his driver’s license; that’s next. He’s got feeders to attract deer and birds. He carries out seeds and molasses daily, and he looks out his living room window and watches them.

He’s free, except for a restriction not to leave the state, which is mildly onerous because he lives near where four states meet, but he doesn’t mind. “Actually, Bro, I don’t really want to leave this house much,” he tells me. “I really like it here.”

He happily cooks me breakfast, slicing and dicing bacon, veggies, potatoes, pacing and talking a mile a minute. A friend gave him a drip coffee pot, which he keeps going all day. He takes long walks in the woods nearby and down by the creek that flows in the ravine. The local Goodwill Store has become his haberdashery.

He is content and relaxed. I sit in an easy chair watching him watch the birds through his picture window and we’re both happy.

A Thanksgiving Eulogy


My father is in heaven. He died four years ago, shortly after turning 80. For his last 20 years, he was a traveling preacher, known in the Plymouth Brethren fellowship as a “laboring brother.” Because of him, our family gathers at Thanksgiving instead of at Christmas, because Christmas trees come from pagan worship, because Jesus wasn’t born in December, and because God would never approve of such blasphemies as drunken parties to honor the birth of His only Son. And so this week I’ll travel to my eldest sister’s house to join my family and to be thankful together and to visit and to squabble and to do everything at Thanksgiving time other families do at Christmas time.

A few years ago, we were gathered in my sister’s living room in Southern Illinois, sated from a bountiful feast and engaging in another tradition. Each person read a scripture verse from a card placed before them and then said what they were thankful for. When my turn came I read, “In everything give thanks,” and then said, “I’m thankful Dad’s not here.” It got a big laugh. Not that we didn’t love our Dad. We did. But the statement was funny, not just because of the out-of-context jolt, but because it was true that Dad’s presence made us uncomfortable.

He was a stern man, lacking in the social graces you and I employ daily. I remember one Thanksgiving Dad was there. Three small candied yams remained in the serving bowl and two siblings were eyeing them hungrily. Dad addressed the heavier one, “Leave it for him. He can use it more than you.”

My mother said, “Chuck! Don’t say that!”

“Why not?”

“It hurts his feelings.”

“You want me to lie? He’s fat! I’m just being honest.”

My father was naturally short on tact. A co-worker told me a story from Shure Brothers, where my father was a quality control manager. One day she overheard an employee saying, “Chuck’s smiling. They must have rejected a batch.” My father himself recounted to me a time when he, a fervent young believer, was counseled by an older “brother”: “The Bible tells us to season our speech with salt, Chuck. I believe you’ve been using pepper.”

My father’s mission was to evangelize; in church, at work, and even in the home. My mother made the world’s tastiest spaghetti—no Italian ever did it better—and when an invitation was extended, everyone knew it meant Laverne would make spaghetti. Invited guests would have a decision to make: was her spaghetti worth the post-prandial preaching? I guess the people I got to know best must have loved spaghetti.

Nor were we spared because we were his children. Daily Bible readings were held in our home. To make it less tedious, Dad instituted a contest. It would be my turn to read until I made a mistake. My sister would pounce on my error and then she’d get to read until she flubbed a word, and so on. This Thanksgiving, if you were to come home with me and say the phrase, “brief synopsis of Revelation,” you’d hear a collective groan as we’d all remember one summer when Dad announced that’s what we were going to get. “It’ll take me a week or so to run through it,” he said, but it dragged on for one interminable year of squirming torture.

And yet at Dad’s funeral, I learned something I’d never realized before. Lots of people loved this hard, unbending man. They came from all over—six states, two countries. The preacher didn’t deliver a eulogy; he preached the gospel. And he hit it hard. Hellfire and damnation—and God’s saving grace. Out of place? Not at Brother Chuck’s funeral, it wasn’t. It was exactly what he would have wanted.

At the graveside, a crowd of people gathered. Several stood by the casket and said a few words. They told stories of my dad and shed gentle tears as they lovingly remembered him. It wasn’t like they were ignorant of his flaws. One story highlighted his bluntness, and wisps of smiles rippled through the mourning congregation.

I wanted to say something too, but I didn’t. If I thought I could have done it without breaking down, here’s what I would have said.

I know my father loved me, but he wasn’t the kind of man to just say it. He spent time with his children. He played sports with us and he read to us for hours. But it was only after I’d become a father myself and after my family had been ripped from me and after I’d suffered so severely I doubted the very existence of the God my father knew and loved, that I came to understand how much he loved me.

My father, along with my mother, drove three hours each way to visit me every month all six years I was in prison. My father cried with me and he hurt for me, he prayed with me and he prayed for me, he begged God to dispel my doubt and to deliver me from my unjust predicament. It was clear he loved me. But it was the thing he didn’t do that, to me, proved my father’s love like nothing else could.

This man of God, who’d never avoided the chance to confront a stranger about Jesus, this husband who’d made a practice of ignoring signs of boredom, anger and hostility as he’d driven home his message of salvation to unwilling victims—so much so that my mother’s relatives would come to town and call her out, but they’d never again put themselves under my father’s roof—this father who desperately wanted to assure his son of the futility of anger against God and to show him from the scriptures that God never gives us a trial so great we can’t bear it … this hard, unyielding, insensitive, yes, even selfish man never once preached to me. He wanted to, I could see it, but he must have had some sense of the additional pain he’d pile on, and he never said a word. If that isn’t love, you tell me what is.

And so when it’s my turn at the dinner table this Thanksgiving, I plan to simply say, “I’m thankful for my Dad.”

Thank you for viewing my blog. Please return often. I value your comments.


David Hendricks

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A Zealot in the Fog

I wrote this very long poem in a prison cell in Menard on deadlock. I was thinking of my family’s regular Sunday drive from Mosinee, WI to Rockford, IL, 200 miles. One Sunday morning, a misty rain froze on the pavement, making driving treacherous. We made the trip anyway, and I remember Becky leaning over the front seat as she liked to do, her long pigtails dangling on the seatback, asking why we did such a crazy thing.

This poem is a ballad filled with allusions to scripture and to the doctrines of that branch of the Plymouth Brethren. I wrote it in their most common hymn meter, in which the lines are and the 6-beat lines rhyme. For an exmple, think “Amazing Grace” or read this incredibly long poem.

The wipers squeaked across the glass
To scrape the fog-made mist,
A pair of pigtails crossed the seat,
He felt a tiny wrist.

My Dear, he said, you must climb back,
I cannot drive like this,
This fog is thick, my eyes are sore,
Climb back now, little Miss.

How come we always drive so far
Just to meet with God?
My good friend Mary walks to church,
It’s just a block for Todd.

We go where God would have us go
We’re gathered to His name,
The Christian saints in Acts did so,
And we’re to do the same.

But Dad, she asked, how come we can’t
Meet God near where we live?
That way you’d save a lot of gas
And there’d be more to give.

To hearken’s better than the fat
Of rams, was his advice,
And to obey is better than
A great big sacrifice.

Now climb back girl before we crash,
This fog is closing tight,
And listen well to what I say,
I’ll teach you Truth and Light.

The thousands, millions, billions who
Seek God in their own way
Are headed for destruction sure,
I faithfully must say.

If you could bore a tunnel through
The earth below our feet,
You’d land in what we call the East
If you got through the heat.

Religions there teach people that
When dead they’ll live again,
Their Karma may make them a rat,
Now that belief is sin.

A little closer to us here,
But still so far away,
Five million Jews in Palestine
Believe in their own way.

The Muslims in the Asian land,
Six hundred million strong,
Say Jesus equaled Abraham,
So they are just as wrong.

The little head appeared again,
Hey Daddy, see that truck?
It makes the fifth one off the road
And all of them are stuck.

My Dear, the fog is freezing now,
So sit back still and tight,
And I will teach you as I drive
And you’ll learn what is right.

Where was I now? Oh yes, I know,
The atheist is next,
God calls him fool, agnostic too,
He’s only more perplexed.

But all of those you’ve mentioned are
An unbelieving throng,
My friends are Christians just like us,
They cannot all be wrong.

My little girl, the lesson you
Must learn from me today:
All who profess Christianity
May not be what they say.

The Mormons hold their man-writ books
To be the Word of God.
On Saturday the Adventists
Would never mow their sod.

Jehovah’s Witnesses there are
And Christian Scientists some,
With Guinea pig they share this trait:
Not pig, nor Guinea from.

I know that well, my father dear,
But my friends Bill and Todd
Believe in Jesus as their Lord,
Their parents worship God.

Of Catholic priests you could say that,
But error filled are they
To grant what only God can give,
To say “Absolvo te.”

At first the Protestants were right
To leave the Roman bed,
But now, though they profess to live,
They are as good as dead.

But my friend Todd is none of these,
His dad’s no priest of Rome,
Or Mormon, Jew or Protestant,
I’ve been in his home.

His folks believe that Jesus saves,
Their Bible church is sound,
They read the scriptures and they pass
The bread and wine around.

Why can’t we go to church with them?
It’s in our neighborhood,
And we could spend the time we’d save
To treat old people good.

Oh, little one, it sounds so fine
To let go principle,
But God has shown us in His Word
The Path of blessing full.

And I must tell you one thing more
Oh, that this fog would go
In things divine you must believe,
You shouldn’t reason so.

Todd’s Bible church, I will admit,
Speaks well of Jesus’ name,
The Nazarenes are saved by grace
And Baptists are the same.

But they all pay their clergymen,
They call him Reverend,
God is the Holy Reverend One,
All knees to Him must bend.

Disdaining all of these we meet
In all humility,
But we are sure we have the Truth
If never harmony.

Now there’s a group much closer home
That satisfies me fine,
They were in Fellowship until
They left the Ground Divine.

Though evil birds lodge in the tree
We must fight nail and tooth
To serve our Lord, the Prince of Peace,
To champion the Truth.

So if we drive through fog and mist
And freezing slippery road
To please the Lord who loves us so,
It’s not a heavy load.

I have a question for you, Dad,
If you can answer me,
Compared to groups in all the world,
How big a group are we?

Well, Child, we are a feeble lot,
A Remnant, just a few,
Six billion holds the world, our group
Six hundred fifty two.

The little girl was good in math;
She sat back and she thought,
She worked the problem in her head,
The way she had been taught.

Why Dad, she cried, in great surprise,
This all must be a hoax,
Would God keep Truth from all but one
Among ten million folks?

My little Dove, he cried, amazed,
Don’t ever talk that way,
We must keep reason from our faith,
Oh Lord, teach us to pray.

He stopped the car and then he said,
Let’s pray right now, my child,
Help us, oh Lord, to know thy Truth
And make this fog more mild.

Her little eyes peered through the glass
As they drove on again,
She looked ahead, she glanced behind,
This little girl of ten.

Hey Dad, look at the car ahead,
Just two pink spots of light,
The headlights of the car behind
Are just a touch more bright.

But Dad, I see you just as well
As if the air were clear,
Just we can see, while they’re all fogged,
The Lord answered our prayer.

Oh silly girl, he laughing said,
It just appears that way;
You have so very much to learn,
We’re just as fogged as they.

Thank you for reading my blog. I hope you visit often. My upcoming book, Tom Henry: Confession of a Killer, will be e-published in September.


David Hendricks