Stephen F. Austin State University

Tom the Tramp: A Genuine Hero (December 2011)

Tom the Tramp: A Genuine Hero

By Judy Linsley

Before Beaumont became an oil town, it was a bustling lumber town. By the 1880s, yellow longleaf pine logs from the huge stands in East and Southeast Texas were being floated down the Neches River to Beaumont.

J. Frank Keith owned Keith Lumber Company, one of the biggest in Beaumont. Frank Keith and his wife, Alice Carroll Keith, were noted in Beaumont for their palatial home on Calder Avenue and for their philanthropy.

When Frank and Alice died, they were buried in the family plot in Beaumont's Magnolia Cemetery, surrounded by their Keith relatives. One inconspicuous tombstone marks the grave of a man who was no relation at all, however: "Tom the Tramp: Died Dec. 5, 1909." How did Tom the Tramp get in the Keith family plot?

The story goes back to the great Galveston storm on September 8, 1900. Frank and Alice Keith were in New York, and two of their daughters, Olga and Alice, were staying with relatives in a hotel at Patton (now Crystal) Beach on Bolivar Peninsula. As the storm intensified, Mrs. A.A. Irwin, the hotel manager, and employee Tom Smith, known as Tom the Tramp, took the Keith girls to another house, hoping it was stronger.

But according to Mrs. Irwin, the house began coming apart "until only the dining room was left." She picked up Alice and took Olga by the hand and headed for another house, but a huge wave knocked Alice unconscious and tore Olga's hand from Mrs. Irwin's. The poor woman thought Alice was dead, but couldn't bring herself to let her go so she could retrieve Olga.

All seemed lost, but Tom came from the house, lifted Olga from the water and handed her back to Mrs. Irwin. He then took Alice and revived her by rolling her back and forth over his shoulder. All four returned to the house to ride out the storm, the little girls standing on the dining room table so their heads would be above water.

Frank and Alice Keith first read in a New York newspaper that their daughters had drowned in the storm. When they found out the real story, they offered a home to both Mrs. Irwin and Tom. Tom accepted, and the Keiths gave him a house at their sawmill. But he was subject to seizures and in 1909 kicked over an oil lamp during one. He burned to death in his house.

The Keiths never forgot what he had done for them, however, and they arranged for his burial in the family plot. Smith was not his real name, so they put on the tombstone the name he was known by, along with a profound tribute to the man who saved their daughters: "He alone is great who by an act heroic renders a real service."

The Calder Avenue home of J. Frank and Alice Carroll Keith, built 1902