Friends, family pay tribute to one of Geneva’s favorite citizens
SOMETHING’S MISSING — A glass of Guinness, a shot of whiskey and other items were placed at Digger’s usual spot at Geneva Bar and Grill during a recent bar bingo. (Star Eagle photo by Kathy Paulsen)
By KATHY PAULSEN
This is a difficult story to write.
Difficult because in no way can it do justice to a special man who so warmed our hearts and left us with a vast amount of touching memories.
Leprechauns are special people who roam the world with their spirit full of tricks and laughter. They always smile and make you feel good.
It has been said if you find a leprechaun you will find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That certainly holds true for the people in our area. The pot of gold was in the heart of Thomas Desmond Donnelly IV, and the rainbow of happiness always seemed to shine after the rain.
Tom was proud of his Irish heritage and could often be seen wearing green. Following his death, people passing by his home on Central Avenue in Geneva could see a lit green shamrock in one of the front windows.Thomas Desmond Donnelly IV was born on an island just east of Ireland to Thomas and Elizabeth Donnelly. Tom died Monday, Oct. 5, but he lives on in the many memories of him, as well as in the many stories that have been shared.
Tom’s father served in the armed forces and the family moved a number of times, making him a world traveler. He spent his earlier years of childhood in England and Okinawa and Texas, and later graduated from Dugway High School in Utah where he was on the varsity football, basketball and golf teams. Yes, this little guy played football and he was given the nickname of “Tough” during his football years.
Tom went on to study macrobiotic cooking in Boston where he met his future and former wife, Sheila O’Leary. Tom and Sheila were married in Donegal, Ireland in 1975. They later moved to the Blooming Prairie area where he farmed organically with draft horses raising cattle, sheep and chickens.
Though he really wasn’t fond of the nickname "Digger," that is what the people in our area started calling him as he dug graves to the top of his head in about 16 area cemeteries. Bob O'Leary started the local grave digging business and Digger later took it over in 1988. Jeff Carlson became his digging partner for many of those years. It is thought that over the years Digger dug about 4,500 graves. That’s a lot of dirt!
Tom was laid to rest at St. Mary’s Cemetery east of Geneva. His family only thought it appropriate to hold the funeral service for him at a cemetery, which is where he spent a great deal of his time. A large number of people, perhaps 200 or more, attended the funeral and many of them honored Tom by wearing his favorite color, green. Digger was proud of his Irish heritage, especially on St. Patrick’s Day. He loved his corned beef and cabbage.
The family used some of his Irish green T-shirts to cover the wood coffin for the funeral. A spade, a metal spatula and one of his green hats were appropriately placed on top of the coffin before it was lowered into the grave. They also had a number of shovels available for the people in attendance to use to help bury him with the dirt that lay next to his grave.
Tom’s family was able to make arrangements for someone to play bagpipes during the service. One of the songs played was “Amazing Grace.” It was beautiful and unforgettable.
John Beckmann, at the time of Tom’s burial said, "I expected, or fantasized, I suppose that when it was time for me to be put under the sod Tom would dig my grave. That his strong back would open the earth for my body and his sharp spade sculpt the edges of the pit of which I was to rest. It was always
ys wonderful to me that a person so vivid and such an embodiment of joyous life would work to make humane and, even, gentle and awful industry of death."
John went on to say, “Death inspires memory and memory makes the thought of people even more wonderful and triumphant. Tom lived according to his own principals and was authentically independent. People were lucky to have met and known him. Tom may have been small in stature but he was large in heart. He was not only something like a legendary being but also a man of great strength and integrity. Tom was highly intelligent, gregarious, convivial to a fault. His generosity was unfailing as was his wit. Everyone who met Tom and looked into his glittering eyes knew that they were in the presence of a great spirit with an immense heart."
Tom’s life included a stint as the fierce mascot for a team of St. Paul roller derby girls. He also served as mascot for the Minnesota Roller Girls as Tom Tom the Leprechaun.
He was beloved by his many friends and could often be found manning the jukebox at the Geneva Bar and Grill, as well as opening the ceremonial "Guinness" to start weekend events at Harmony Park south of Geneva, as the ceremonial mayor.
Digger was quick witted and one of his favorite retorts to those who asked if he dug graves by hand was, “No, I used a shovel.” In addition to grave digging, he loved to bird watch and finished a crossword puzzle daily.
Tom may have been only 5 feet tall and weighed all of 100 pounds when he was in good shape, but he was large in heart.
Kevin Durgen shared some thoughts during the service at the cemetery: "So Tom is dead. Any relationship you had with him has not really ended. It has just changed and continues to change as we do in our own lives. Any bond we had with Tom is ongoing with the passage of time with every memory and story told. Every time we tell stories of Tom we connect with each other and with Tom. We are celebrating his personal traits and his quirky anecdotes which he had many. We need to do this and repeat them not only for our own sanity and survival for day to day living, but it keeps his energy alive as he once lived and breathed amongst us. Grieving is as natural as breathing. As we go down this road of the living and loving as human beings, we cannot avoid the grieving as well. It is part of being alive. Cheers to Tom!"
Jim McDermott also shared stories and memories of Tom.
Several members of Digger’s family graciously accepted a large wooden key, that was almost as big as Tom was, that had been made in honor of Digger’s title of Mayor of Harmony Park. The key had been carved by a crafter from Africa. (This crafter also carved the totem poles at Harmony Park.)
During the food and merriment at Harmony Park following Tom’s burial, the park bell was rung in honor of Tom.
Before the day came to a close at Harmony Park a red maple tree was planted in Tom’s honor near the playground. Plans also include building a park bench.
Digger was the proud father of six children: Daniel, Timmy, Mary, Bridget, Molly and Theresa. He also had six grandchildren: Tommy, Micah, Regan, Hazel, Gwen and North. He’s also survived by three brothers.