KLIPSAN BEACH - Tom Lyons has made beautifully intricate carvings with ancient Samoan legends as his subject and his wife Julia plays classical piano with much the same beauty and intricacy as his artwork displays. The couple moved to the Peninsula from American Samoa about a year and a half ago, but their skill with their hobbies is only part of their story.
Tom began his career as a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology in 1945 on Long Island near where he grew up in Brooklyn. He attended Villanova and Temple universities in Philadelphia and then practiced in his native New York for 17 years. He then decided to practice medicine in Guam and was there three years before returning to the U.S., until "malpractice laws and such made me want to return to the islands."
Tom practiced at a hospital in Samoa and that is where he met Julia. "As soon as I saw him I knew 'that's it' and I still think he's good looking," she says with humor and affection. Julia wasn't a patient; instead she was the first women CEO of the hospital in Samoa. "I was her escort a few times for social functions," Tom says.
Julia was also the first female doctor of Samoan decent. "We would sometimes argue about what we should do with one of our little patients," Julia says hugging Tom's arm. "I'm very blunt, you know."
"As a child all I wanted to do is play the piano and read," she explains. "My father told me I had to go to the university in the Philippines to study medicine and in those days when your parents told you to do something you did it." After graduating from the school in Manila she worked three years in Boston and three in New York, but never met Tom until she was in Samoa.
She worked at Oregon Health Science University (OHSU) for 17 years and then she returned to Samoa for seven years to be director of the hospital there. "The governor called me to come back to Samoa and so I went," she said. After the couple was married, Julia received a grant from San Diego State to study childhood disabilities. While she was in San Diego Tom took a position in Florida and commuted. "Tom has delivered thousands of babies," Julia said.
"I would deliver up to five babies a day," Tom says of his career that spans 45 years as an OBGYN. In 2001 Julia was named to Who's Who in America for her work in the medical field. "It was hard to retire because there are so many children who need medical attention," Julia said.
The Lyons have three daughters and four sons and all seven live on the East Coast. Tom and Julia purchased the property their retirement home is on while she was at OHSU. Julia said, "The governor of Samoa says he will drop in on us some day."
Tom, who is legally blind, has curtailed his carving, but when he was in Samoa he learned from a master carver named Sven Orquist. Orquist had lost parts of his fingers due to leprosy, but his carvings show amazing detail and realism.
"We used mahogany and teak and the carving tools had to be very sharp because mahogany is a hard wood and teak is grainy," Tom explains. "Sven would draw out the design and he would tell me "no, no, no" or "yes, yes, yes" depending upon if I did the carving to meet his expectations."
Samoan legends are passed on by word of mouth. One of Tom's carvings depicts a legend about why the dolphins return to Samoa at a certain time each year. Tom explains the legend by saying, "A sea captain put in at an island to fill coconuts with fresh water for the voyage. When the seamen returned with the water they said everyone was on board, but it was soon discovered that Sina, the Queen was left behind. The captain threw all the men overboard and they turned into dolphins. Each year they now return to look for her."
Besides carving Tom used to scuba dive and still loves to play golf. Julia says, "He is a very good golfer." Her hobbies are ceramics and playing the classics on her piano. The couple loves to travel and have taken cruises to Alaska, the Orient, the Mediterranean, Hong Kong, Singapore and several other ports of call. "About the only place we haven't been is the North and South Pole," Tom jokes.
Julia tells of how she often put her position on the line to help the Samoan hospital and other hospitals in the South Pacific meet the needs of the children by using funds effectively. Tom also made professional sacrifices to insure his young patients had the best care possible.
"When you can help that little child get well even when things look so bad that the parents say to let them go, that is the reward of my career," Julia said.
A carving the great Orquist gave Tom is of several Samoans surrounding a chief who holds a pair of new born babies. At the far right of the carving is Julia, complete with her stethoscope.
Now they are content to relax as Julia plays The Samoan Love Song on the piano and waits for the day the governor will drop by. Besides carving legends Tom and Julia have become legends in their own right for their work in Samoa and the United States.