I have met many fascinating people while working around the world with various cultures and tribes – people who are amazing role models and have performed great feats without demanding compensation or special privileges. One of these impressive people is Dr. Tom Coleman from Cambridge, Minnesota.
I first met Dr. Coleman when I was working on the film series, “Pretty Much 100% Scandinavian” interviewing hundreds of people all around the Midwest. Tom is a cheerful Swedish-American who always has a funny story to tell, usually with some connection to his forefathers’ homeland, Sweden. Growing up, Tom spoke three languages in his home, Swedish, English and the Orsa dialect. As far as we know, Tom is the last living American in the US who speaks the Orsa dialect. That makes him a little sad. Soon 95 years old, on April 24th, he misses the friends he was once able to converse with in “Orsamål.” But as soon as we get together we speak Swedish, Tom’s second-favorite language.
Tom’s grandfather left Orsa, Sweden on May 1, 1873, together with 100 other young people. They travelled via Gothenburg to America. “A lot of people were crying,” Tom’s grandfather told him, “because they knew they would never see each other again.”
I filmed and interviewed Tom Coleman several times and he told me stories of his Swedish grandparents. His grandfather’s name was actually Larsson, but he had heard that the name would cause problems in the US since there were many Larssons in the area where he planned to settle. It would be confusing and he might not get his mail. On the journey to America he had to wait a couple days in Liverpool for the next ship. Wandering the streets he pondered on what name he should choose when he came to America. He passed a large brick building with a sign that said, Coleman & Co. “Coleman”, he thought, “that is a good name for Americans.”
Several times while we were filming Tom asked me if I couldn’t use some of his pictures from Ethiopia in the film series “Pretty Much 100% Scandinavian”, but each time I explained that I didn’t think they were fitting for a film about Scandinavians in Minnesota. He showed me many pictures from Africa of people with terrible injuries and horrible deformities. At that time I didn’t really understand the enormous contribution Tom and Elaine had made among the poorest people of Africa, but every time I was in Minnesota I’d run into Tom or hear about him through someone else. I began to realize that the stories of the Coleman Family’s life in Africa, and the work Tom and Elaine had done for so many years, was a story of sacrifice and boundless love. Without them, many people in that foreign land would have had no medical aide at all. The first clinic where Tom and Elaine worked was a wooden shed about the size of a small garage. People came by the hundreds with leprosy, intestinal diseases, gigantic tumors, cancer, gunshot wounds, and sometimes with a spear or an arrow through their bodies.
Why do people like Tom and Elaine sacrifice such a large portion of their lives to helping others? Of course, it is because they have a great amount of love for people, but for Tom and Elaine, it was also because of a deep faith in a God who loves everyone equally. Tom, whose 95th birthday is in April, recently had a dream. In the dream three children came running from a nearby playground to greet him. Laughing and jumping they called, “We have been waiting for you Grandpa!” Tom recognized the children who had all died very young years ago in Ethiopia. “I think,” he told me, “that there is going to be a lot of light and enormous joy in heaven.” That is the hope that has given him the strength to bear the many difficulties involved in working with poor people in Africa.
Next week we’ll visit the village in Africa that Tom and his family call ”home.”