“Pop Charming”

Philip Morris Magazine
March/April 1989

If you think Thomas J. Ebdon of Sarasota, Florida, has lost a step just because he turned 100 years old this January 24, then think again. Ebdon is as sly as a fox and as quick as one, too. He’s got a comeback so fast that 73-year-old spittin’ image, Thomas J. Ebdon, Jr., is hard-pressed to keep up . . . but gives it his best shot anyway. “Got any advice for the youngsters? I ask Mr. E. Senior. “What’s the secret of a long life?”

“Cheap whiskey and cigars and smelly pipes,” chirps Junior, getting a baleful look from Pop.

“Tell ‘em,” Senior deadpans in response, “To be careful what they say. And to drink good whiskey.” As for pipes, Ebdon says he’s been smoking one since 1919, the same year he took inventor Alexander Graham Bell on a personal tour of the Panama Canal. Ebdon, born in Houston, went to Panama for a month at the age of 18, and wound up working on the canal as a mechanic and train engineer for 44 years. He shook hands with four American presidents—both Roosevelts, Harding, and Taft—and dined with World War I General John “Black Jack” Pershing.

“Bell was a chunky sort of fellow and had a beard,” Ebdon recalls. “I was supposed to be working, but I was loafing and I saw him. I asked ‘Are you Alexander Graham Bell?’ He said, ‘Yes sir.’ I asked what he was doing there all by himself and he said, ‘I want to be alone.’” But Bell agreed to a little sightseeing—over the locks and in the operations tunnels. “Then I took him up to the control house and said to the superintendent, ‘I want to introduce you to Alexander Graham Bell.’ He said, ‘The hell you say!’” Ebdon laughs.

How did he recognize Bell in the first place? “I had seen his picture in the newspaper. I’ve been reading the newspaper,” he chuckles, “for 100 years.” These days he is as likely to be checking the winning lottery numbers—a longtime hobby—or scanning TV listings for matches featuring favorite wrester Dusty Rhodes, as keeping up with history in the making.

Like all folks his age, Ebdon has been an eyewitness to miracles. He remembers the first automobile, seeing his first movie (The Great Train Robbery) in 1903, and glimpsing Halley’s Comet—twice. But it’s space travel he finds most amazing. “That’s the greatest feat,” he states emphatically. “There were six men on the moon, and all of them came back.”

“Twelve,” his son corrects, setting off a stubborn flurry of head shaking. “Six trips and two men each.”

“I think you went through this before,” Mrs. Ebdon Junior interjects. Ebdon concedes and allows that he wouldn’t have minded a jaunt to the moon himself. Besides, he chuckles, pointing to Ebdon Junior, “This fellow has often told me he’d like to give me a kick and put me into permanent orbit.” His son sighs, “That’s true.”

Ebdon and wife Emma married in 1913. They had four children and 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Emma died in 1974. “I don’t know how she put up with me for 60 years,” Ebdon declares, yet gives a charming hint as to what a sweetheart he really is.

“Who,” I ask, “aside from your wife, is the most beautiful woman of the century in which you have lived?” Ebdon ducks his head, feigning shyness, and takes my hand in a tight grip. “Well, we’ll start out with you,” he kids. Ebdon Junior rolls his eyes. “Oh, Pop,” he groans, defeated. “Let go of her hand.”

© Charlotte Johnson Jones 1989


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