By Jack Nelson
My wife Sherry and I motored to Long Beach Sunday afternoon to attend the "Celebration of Life" services for the late Dr. Tom Amberry, the noted podiatrist and champion free throw shooter from Seal Beach, CA who passed away on Saturday, March 18th at the age of 94.
It was a wonderful service with a large circle of friends. Most wanted to give eulogies but they closed off the eulogies after about an hour and a half and adjourned to the basement where we heard more stories about Dr. Tom.
He was a great man, a great podiatrist, great friend. And a perfect free throw shooter. I didn't get to know him personally until his grandson was playing basketball at Ocean View in Huntington Beach about 15 years ago.
I knew his name from reading about him breaking the Guinness world record for consecutive free throws, made at 2,750 at the age of 71 years. The article mentioned that he was born in Grand Forks, ND in 1922 and graduated from Grand Forks Central high school in 1940.
In 1940 I was living in the Red River Valley on the Minnesota side of the river in the small town of Hendrum, which was about 30 miles north of Fargo-Moorhead and 60 miles south of Grand Forks. I was a year away from starting the first grade just 3 months before Pearl Harbor.
Anyway, one day years later while watching his grandson Clint play, a friend of mine pointed Doc out in the audience across the way and told me that it was Clint's grandfather. So at halftime I had to go and introduce myself and tell him I had read about his great free throw shooting and that I had grown up in the Red River Valley and attended Moorhead State college in Moorhead.
He then told me that in 1940-41 he was a freshman at Concordia College in Moorhead but when Pearl Harbor was hit and the US went to war, he dropped out of college and joined the Navy for the duration of the war.
He was in the Navy until the war ended. After his discharge Doc went to North Dakota University in his home town of Grand Forks and he was a star basketball player there during the 1945-46 teams.
While talking to Doc at halftime that day, I mentioned that I had grown up in the small town of Hendrum, MN and that really rang a bell with him. He said, "I set my all time single game scoring record against the Hendrum Bombers in 1941.”
The Bombers were the local town team in independent leagues and at the end of the season they would have a big Red River Valley independent basketball tournament at the YMCA in Fargo.
Tom was a varsity player at Concordia his freshman year and when their season was over they did not have any tournament so they were able to become an independent team and play in the tournament Red River Valley.
My Dad and his partner Winston Marsden owned the Phillips 66 service and bulk station in Hendrum and Winston was a star player on the Bombers. He and my dad sponsored the team and had the Phillips 66 logo on their jerseys.
Well Doc and I became friends right from our first meeting. When I would call him on the phone he would always say "Is this the original Hendrum Bomber?"
Since he was a retired podiatrist I told him that one of my best shipmates in the Navy went to medical school after he got out of the Navy and became a podiatrist in Long Beach in the 70's. He had moved on to Bishop, CA, then on to Billings, Montana. He asked me what his name was and I said, "Tom Countway."
His eyes lit up and he said "You know Countway? I went to his wedding." And that sealed the deal and we were great friends the rest of his life. Some 10 years later, we always got together on Saturday mornings for breakfast in the Long Beach area.
My sister and her husband live up in Visalia, CA and after my dad had passed away they went back to Hendrum and loaded up a bunch of stuff that mom had saved and was bringing back to California where she was going to live.
So my sister put a bunch of stuff in their garage and 20 some years later she called and said she was going thru mom’s stuff and found some scrapbooks that I had made as a kid. I thought I would like to see them so they brought them the next time they came to visit me.
In 1940 I had not yet started school and could not read. But I guess I knew how to use a scissors and paste. My dad sold Goodyear tires at the station and he had brought home one of their advertising books. I guess that looked like a good scrapbook to me.
Basketball players were my main thing in the scrapbook and most of them were pictures of college and high school players with just their uniforms. Most did not have the names of who they were.
Then midway thru the book there was a picture full length of each player on the Concordia College team. There he was. 18 year old freshman Tom Amberry.
I just could not believe it and I really had a hard time waiting until the following Saturday to show the Tom and the breakfast gang my scrapbook that I had made over 70 years ago. Needless to say it was a hit at breakfast that Saturday.
I took the page out of the scrapbook and Doc’s son Tom Jr., also a podiatrist, had it taken to a photo shop and got copies made. The head of the Southern California Basketball Association was having a coaching clinic in Brea the following Saturday. He told Doc and I to be out there with that scrapbook.
So we did and I have to say it was one of the most thrilling days of my life when I saw coaches like hall of famers Jerry Tarkanian and Tex Winter going over the scrapbook I had made as a 5 year old. I was sure glad my mom had saved it.
I learned that Tom’s sister Florence (Dolly) lived in Moorhead, MN so I started visiting her there every year. I go back to Fargo-Moorhead every June for Memorial weekend for Roger Maris, who grew up in Grand Forks until he was 12. He then moved to Fargo and played his Junior Legion and first year of Class C minor league ball in Fargo. Then he came back in the off season when he was playing with the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City A's.
I got my greatest sports thrill of all to be in Yankee Stadium on Oct 1st,1961 to see Roger hit his 61st HR to break Babe Ruth's record. He connected in the 3rd inning off Tracy Stallard of the Boston Red Sox in the final game of the season for the only run in the 1-0 Yankee win. .
Dolly was Doc’s oldest sister and she died in Moorhead last Sept at the age of 98 after a fall. She had been in good shape and was walking a two mile round trip to the grocery store until the last year or two.
In 2013 Grand Forks Central initiated a distinguished alumni hall of fame and there was a class of 3 named for the first year. Doc was one of them. The induction was at homecoming in October but Doc could not make it so he had his sister Dolly go up to Grand Forks and make the acceptance speech for him.
My college roommate at Moorhead now lives in Cleveland and had a sister in Grand Forks that he was going to visit. He asked me if I would like to go along and help with the driving so I said yes. He picked me up and we got to Grand Forks in late afternoon.
I had not been to Grand Forks since my college days in Moorhead in the 50's so after we crossed the river from Minn. I got out my cell phone and called Doc out in California. I told him we were driving thru his hometown and he asked what street we were going by.
I looked out and told him, and it was hard to believe it was the street he grew up on. We went over there and I took pictures of his old home that was still there. Hard to believe but it really happened that way.
I really am happy that I got to know the real Tom Amberry even though it was late in our lives. I feel grateful to have known him and he is one of the most memorable guys I have ever known.
R.I.P. Dr Tom. You were loved.
Photo by Jack Nelson
PS. The day that Doc's sister gave the acceptance speech up in Grand Forks for his induction to the distinguished alumni, I got a call from my roommate's nephew. He was the director of the Grand Forks Central high school band that played at the ceremony.
He called me afterward to tell me what a great job that Dolly had done on her acceptance speech for Doc. Later that night I called her and told her that I had heard she did a great job on her speech up in Grand Forks. She could not believe that I knew anything about it. I told her I had spies checking her out. ha ha.
Anyway, Dr. Tom did not get his distinguished alumni award for shooting free throws.
That first day I met Dr. Tom, I went home and called my old shipmate in Billings, Montana, Dr Tom Countway. I told him I had met a retired podiatrist that had attended his wedding and he said, “Do you know who Dr. Amberry is?” I said , "Yes, he is the Guinness world record holder for consecutive free throws."
Dr Countway said, "I will tell you who Dr Amberry is: he is to podiatry what Henry Ford was to the auto industry.” All I could say was “wow!” And as I learned, It turned out to be the truth. Also at one time he had a fleet of Rolls Royces, probably the most in America.
But he was as down to earth as anyone I have ever known.