Besides songs, poems, bumper stickers, protests, and posters, one way to define peacemaking is on a personal level. And so it is with Hometown Hero Tom Ewell, whose friends and colleagues often refer to him as a peacemaker.
What does peacemaker mean? For starters, Dianne Shiner says it’s not passive. It is hard work being actively involved.
“If ever there was a man whose passion is clearly written all over his life, it is Tom Ewell the Peacemaker,” she said. “In both his public work and in private relationships, his consistent expression is to increase peace and reconciliation, within our community, legislature, and prisons.”
Ewell places himself in the middle of conflict and works for justice.
Driving into Ewell’s driveway, he and his wife Cathy Whitmire come out to greet you with welcoming hugs. Shepherding you into their home they have healthy, delectable foods prepared on the coffee table. And a lunch prepared for later. Whitmire brings over an extra pillow for the guest’s chair while Ewell adjusts the sun shade. They do everything to help one feel comfortable and appreciated.
For 45 years, the two have been active members of the Religious Society of Friends, sometimes better known as Quakers. As Ewell explains, “Quakers have an essential belief there is that of God in all people which means that each life has sanctity and the capacity for love.” When asked if he believes in evil he quickly responds, “Yes.”
Evil and injustice must be confronted, he said, and Quakers have a long history of active nonviolence in response to injustice through non-cooperation, education, and organizing various forms of resistance and alternatives to the violence. Ewell cites the role of Quakers in the struggle against slavery. He says that the goal is never to have peace at any price, but to achieve justice. For many years, Ewell has been a Quaker lobbyist in the state Legislature and as the national level.
Smiling, he says, “We Quakers like to think we give the title ‘lobbyist’ a good name!”
Growing up wasn’t easy for Ewell. His dad died of spinal meningitis when he was 21 months old. “My mother wanted to give me a father, and she re-married when I was 8 years old. The man was a lawyer so she thought he would be a good provider. But, he was a poor role model and an alcoholic. My mother died of a heart attack when I was 15, and I needed to find another home. I was fortunate that my neighbor and Sunday school teacher, ‘Mom Dundon,’ took me in and provided a loving and solid home for me.”
Ewell likes to talk about the motivation he gets from his best friend in high school, Harvey, who has had multiple sclerosis for the past 30 years. Ewell still calls him regularly and the phone calls always end the same way with Harvey reminding him that, “You can do it!” And Ewell says that he figures if “Harv” can keep going after years of debilitation, the least he can do is to keep working at things that are difficult for him.
Ewell says he feels best about himself when he is of service to others.
“It’s fulfilling to put others before myself, and to advocate for the welfare of those at the margins of life: those in prison, the homeless, those affected by war, the ill, and those abused,” he said.
Ewell believes that conflict is inevitable, often necessary and can help us grow. “Conflict makes the world go round, don’t you think?” he asks. He says, “However, it is important to learn how to resolve conflicts nonviolently with caring and respect so that conflicts do not become violent. And when they do, we need skills like nonviolent communication and diplomacy to work toward some level of peaceful reconciliation. At times we all make mistakes that are thoughtless or foolish. So I try not to personalize conflicts or jump to conclusions about people by remembering not to attribute malice that can be better explained by incompetence and ignorance. And I find that little humor and forgiveness can go a long way.”
Ewell recognizes that living in harmony with others and even living in community is never easy. He quotes another Quaker, Parker Palmer, who says, “Our companions will be given to us by grace. Often, they also will be persons who will upset our settled view of self and world. In fact, we might define true community as that place where often the person you least want to live with lives.” He and his wife both laugh.
Ewell cites his longtime work in the field of criminal justice, including his time on the Island County Law and Justice Council where he co-chaired a task force on restorative justice that produced recommendations that are now being implemented in the juvenile justice system. Restorative justice asks what harm has been done rather than focusing on what law has been broken. This approach to justice offers alternatives to jail, victims an opportunity to be heard and offenders a chance to hear the harm they have done, apologize and try to make things right toward the goal of healing the impact of a crime.
Ewell remarks, “I imagine we all have regrets and remember times in our life we would like to redo, or apologize for.”
He regrets harm he may have done as a teacher in the 1970s because he was not aware of dyslexia and other learning challenges. And he regrets a failed marriage. However, he says the important thing is to learn from failures, apologize and make amends where one can, and come out better on the other side.
He believes that people speak best to others about issues of care and compassion with the example of how they live their lives. He can cite by memory the poem that begins, “I would rather see a sermon any day, I’d rather one would walk with me than merely show the way. For the eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear; fine counsel if confusing, but example’s always clear.”
He adds that the Quakers like to say simply, “Let your life speak.”
Whitmire tells about a time in the 1990’s when her husband was invited to speak at a large very, conservative forum as a proponent of gay rights. All the speakers that went before Ewell not only demeaned LGBT people, but attacked him personally with insults about whether he had any moral standards. When it was his turn to speak, instead of being defensive or trying to counter their insults, Ewell spoke to the audience with empathy and compassion about his own journey.
He said “I grew up in the 50s with lots of fears and prejudices about gays and lesbians. Where I was from it was common to insult someone by calling them ‘queer.’ None of us really knew anything about gay or lesbians, we just used the word ‘queer’ as a snide remark or put-down. I am ashamed now and wish I could apologize to every gay and lesbian that I may have hurt.”
After he finished his talk the auditorium was quiet. And the moderator, who had earlier been angry and dismissive of Ewell, stood and said he was ashamed of how he and the audience had acted and that Ewell, by his nonviolent, nonjudgmental response had made him begin to re-think his position.
Dick Hall of Episcopal Peace fellowship writes,
“Ewell is a beacon to follow and a model to emulate. I have witnessed Ewell bring about reconciliation between individuals who were ‘shouting’ at each other. I have also observed Ewell interject a calming influence on those who in expressing righteousness anger were not effective in their advocacy for peace and justice.”
In addition to being a peacemaker Ewell reaches out to “the least of our human family” which includes those in prison, Hall said. Concern for incarcerated individuals, based on faith, has led him to engage through education with those imprisoned in Monroe. Locally he has worked with Island County to put into practice a non- punitive concept of restorative justice for youth, Hall said.
Ewell says, “I am content at the age I am. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we knew what we know now and could go back and be 18?”
But then he remembers those years weren’t easy either. He recalls when he was the first chair of the brand new student honor code committee at his college.
“The first case was a friend of mine who had plagiarized his term paper and this case was especially wrenching for me, because I had to agree that my friend had to leave college. There are consequences to our choices; however we can hand out justice in love.”
In his daily life Ewell says his basic motto is: “Expect Grace and Pray for Mercy.” Those words and assurances comfort me.
He picks up his Indian flute. “I don’t play well he says, but I play to my satisfaction. I can even put myself to sleep playing,” he laughs. His playing is like a call to adoration, it’s beautiful and you don’t’ want him to stop.
He also has a favorite tune he constantly hums called the “Magic Penny.”
“It just makes me happy,” he says.
To learn more about Ewell, visit his website at www.tomewell.com/.
What others have to say about Tom
“Tom Ewell has become my mentor. I heard him speak at a conference; he was calm, even handed, never blaming, but his presentation rattled my world. He didn’t join in to rabble rouse, but just to bear witness to harm in the simple and Quaker-ly faith that in this great nation one can speak truth to power and have power budge. He operates from a moral force that is not pushy but not relenting either. I decided to tag along with him to a controversial meeting. I learned from him that a peace-maker simply keeps befriending and building relationships with all parties in a conflict. We are not called to be supermen/women. We are called to mobilize the best in us at all times for the good of all. He is not an ideologue, he’s an unstoppable force for good.”
Vicki Robin, author
“Tom is a man who thoughtfully chooses how he will invest his energy and often takes on tough issues. For example, over several years he has worked to reform the criminal justice system, and he has worked to mitigate the practice of state sponsored torture. Whatever he works at, he doesn’t do it alone. He believes that real work requires partners and allies working together, and increasingly he is aware that he is handing off the big work to the next generation.”
Sharon Daloz Parks, Clinton
“Tom is a committed and determined man who, with kindness and respect for all, works behind the scenes to make changes in our community that make us better. Recently he led an effort to inform and educate Island County juvenile justice officials on the concept of Restorative Justice, which is shown by research to be a more effective strategy to hold juvenile offenders accountable for their misdeeds while treating them respectfully and better integrating them back into the community. This approach also better serves their victims and the people in the system responsible for the young people.”
Janice O’Mahony, volunteer
“Tom Ewell walks his talk. He lives his faith. His gentle, respectful nature and strong desire for social justice are both compelling and inspiring. Tom urges us all to be our best selves, to listen to our hearts, and to seek a more peaceful world. He pushes elected leaders at all levels of government to enact policies for a safer, more thriving planet. I am grateful to know Tom and greatly value his perspective.”
Helen Price Johnson, Island County commissioner
“Tom is a peacemaker in ways both simple and profound, but never passive. This means that he courageously speaks truth in all levels: locally, state and federal. He is persistent in seeking points of common ground for those of opposing points of view on difficult subjects. He extends his friendship in a direct, personal way that is anchored in the spiritual guidance of Society of Friends — Quakers.”
Gloria Koll, community volunteer
“He is a prince of humanity – thoughtful, considerate, and deliberate in his efforts to do well. In addition, he has a delightful sense of humor and wonderful self-effacement. In this time of highly inflated egos, Tom is a steadying force for reason and humility. I think that makes him an exceptionally fine role model for all of us.”
Elizabeth Guss, pastoral assistant St. Hubert Church
“I have known Tom for almost 30 years. He is a long-term Quaker, a “weighty friend” in the Quaker argot. He is deeply committed to non-violent approaches to conflict resolution, and yet does not work from a narrow ideology but from a deeply-rooted conviction that, “there is that of God in everyone,” even—and perhaps even especially—those who differ with him. Most recently, he has become deeply involved in the controversy over the Navy’s growing use of “Growlers.” He has done so because he knows that we are all islanders, and what is harmful to some of us is ultimately harmful to all.”
Larry Daloz , Clinton
“Tom lives his Quaker faith in every moment of every day. He does not judge, neither does he give up hope with those who perhaps don’t deserve his patience or whose actions could be judged. Tom is kind. He has a highly developed emotional intelligence particularly when it comes to sensing the needs of others, and I have seen him act on that sensitivity and instinct many, many times. You can count on him to do as he says, and know that he will always come through. Tom is a great group member, he leads when necessary, but doesn’t feel the need to be the center of attention.”
Cate Andrews, community volunteer
“Tom Ewell reminds me always that there is a ‘best’ part of myself and of others. Although I have known many Quakers in my life, I have never had a friend who is a Quaker and who practices his faith every day and in all that he does. Knowing Tom, I am a better person and have new tools in my relationship tool box – so needed in our world today, where conflict seems to be the order of the day.”
Maryon Attwood, business owner
“I highly respect Tom as a prophet in our midst, quietly challenging anyone who will listen to consider alternatives to the status quo that can result in a more peaceful community. Consider the gun violence of late. As a pacifist, which is the mindset of Quakers, Tom is pondering how to bring the residents of South Whidbey to consensus on this volatile issue and if anyone can succeed, I imagine Tom is the one who can broaden our outlook on this touchy sensitive matter.”
Fr. Rick Spicer, pastor St. Hubert Church
“Tom was a courageous and dedicated partner for years on the Island County Law and Justice Council. He brought an often unseen perspective to a room full of criminal justice professionals. I learned a great deal from Tom, and am thankful he is a part of our community.”
Greg Banks, Island County prosecutor
“I first got to know Tom through the weekly clergy gathering on South Whidbey clergy. This group of preachers and pastors and chaplains gets together every week to talk about ministry, and support each other. Tom comes with his Quaker perspective, and as someone who cares about our life together. When Tom shares, he always has something thoughtful, or reflective, or challenging to say. He goes deeper with the text, asks harder questions, pushes back against traditional perspectives. There is a saying that we are called to “be the change you want to see in the world.” Tom not only wants to see peace in the world, he lives out peace in the ways he interacts with others.
Catherine Foote, pastor of University Congregational UCC
“I encountered Tom in 1980, when he was a leader in the peace movement in Maine. He spoke of restorative justice, and that nonviolent action is the most effective way to bring about real change for the perpetrator and healing for the victim as well. What a delight to reconnect with Tom and Cathy here on Whidbey as their welcoming presence invites everyone in to anything they are involved in.”
Sarah Schmidt, South Whidbey resident
Thomas (Tom) Charles Ewell
Born: 7-27-1943, Akron, Ohio
Education: Rootstown High School; BA, College of Wooster Ohio; MSW, Washington University
Spouse: Cathy Whitmire
Children: Richard and wife Maggie, Jonathan and wife Anne, Zachary and wife Noor
Grandchildren: Sarah, the twins Evan & Erin, Isaiah and Soraya
Years on Whidbey: 10
Hobbies: Pottery, tennis, writing, gardening and raising orchids
TOM’S PERSONAL SIDES
People you would like to spend time with?
“Demon tutu, Dalai Lama, Pope Francis. Also the millions of people across the globe who are working creatively, non-violently and joyfully to build a more peaceful world.”
Your favorite book?
“ ‘The Bible’ has provided me with wisdom, inspiration and given me a model for compassion and inclusiveness that has guided my life. Other books that are important to me are ‘The Prophetic Imagination,’ and ‘To End All Wars.’ And at the risk of promoting my wife’s books, ‘Plain Living & Practicing Peace.’”
What is something you don’t/didn’t want anyone to know about you?
“I fear Aliens.”
“That human services and infrastructure issues go lacking, when our military takes such an huge part of our federal budget. Also, pokey drivers on 525.”
Someone who inspired you when you were young?
“Albert Schweitzer, for his emphases on reverence of life and service to the poor.”
What do you wish people would understand about you?
“I often feel inadequate to the task of peace and reconciliation, but I keep trying anyway.”
What animals are you most like?
“I think I am like a golden retriever service dog loyal brave, and loving. But my wife says I am more like a fun loving otter.”