Finding fulfillment in a life spent reading

As a Boeing engineer during the Cold War-era space race, islander Tom Herring went on many business trips. Before the days of wi-fi and in-flight entertainment, he came up with his own way to pass the unscheduled hours provided by travelling.

“Everywhere that Boeing sent me I wrote a review of every paper and every symposium, and if I thought it was bad I said so,” Herring, 96, recalled during a recent interview at his Burton home. “I got a kick out of these poorly written, nicely bound pieces, and I gave them hell.”

That’s where “the bug” got him, he said, and when he retired in 1985, he started doing the same with books. He has multiple notebooks filled with reviews that range from extensive ones handwritten in pencil to the short, typed ones of the last few years. One notebook contains more than 300 reviews.

“It was a game with Boeing before, but when I retired I found myself writing a lot more. It turned out that the biggest thrill is just plain writing,” he said.

Sitting in a wheelchair by a window on a rainy day, Herring is the picture of a nearly 100-year-old man on hospice care. He’s quiet and pensive until he starts talking about his reviews. Then, the brilliant man who attended New York City’s prestigious Ethical Culture Fieldston School and Cornell University takes over. He recalled not only the fun of tearing up reports at Boeing, but writing weekly pieces about the Green Party called “Thoughts by the Way” on his now nonexistent website Tom’s Ramblings.

“The process of sweating out a concise piece of writing — I got as much practice from those weeklies as I did critiquing the Boeing symposiums,” he said.

Herring was a fierce Green Party supporter. Letters from him that call for making the Green Party a viable third party in the country can be found in 2008 issues of The Beachcomber and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He’s also mentioned in an April 2007 article in The Seattle Times as one of the 1,400 who showed up to Pioneer Square for a “low-key march” to raise awareness about global warming.

“Walking with the aid of a cane was Tom Herring, 85, of Vashon, a retired Boeing engineer,” the April article reports. “He was handing out leaflets he printed on his home computer that said, ‘Global war + global warming = global wasteland. Green Party of Washington State.’”

He has been bringing that same passion to writing the reviews he still emails to family members.

“I’ve always liked writing,” he said. “If I couldn’t write something, anything, I would die.”

But this sharp mind is in a constant battle with his aging one, and he expresses frustration when he loses his train of thought.

“It’s so easy to get derailed” or “I hit that snag again,” he said when a thought seemed to escape him.

Herring cannot hear well anymore, can no longer type on his computer and admits that he has “obviously slowed down,” but he has carried on with help from island caregiver Zach Krieger, a man Herring called “so doggone competent.” He said he and his wife of 58 years, Ingaborg, have “depended on Zach tremendously in many, many ways.”

“I would be shut down without him,” Herring said.

Krieger, a certified nursing assistant, has been visiting Herring a few times a week for the past two years and helping with things Herring wants to, but can’t do, such as cleaning out bookshelves, completing household tasks and, of course, writing reviews. Herring explained that his invention to keep the reviews coming involves him taking a pencil to a plain sheet of paper and writing a review in his “imperfect hand.” Krieger then types it up and pastes it into one of Herring’s notebooks and sends it to Herring’s son and daughter.

“It’s very touching because now he’s at a place where the review may be nothing more than two sentences, but it shows you how important it is for him to still feel that he’s doing something valuable to others,” Krieger said. “Fortunately, his children are both very supportive … and always write back and say, ‘Oh, it looks like a good book.’”

Krieger explained that one of the very first tasks he completed with Herring helped him understand why these reviews have continued to be an important part of Herring’s life. The two were cleaning out the room Herring calls his office and came across physics textbooks from Herring’s time at Cornell. They were written by Richard Feynman, a renowned theoretical physicist and Cornell professor.

“He (Herring) was very proud of the textbooks and wanted to get rid of them, but not throw them away,” Krieger said.

So the two contacted physics departments at local universities and donated the books to Seattle University.

“The chairman of the department was overjoyed,” Krieger said.

And the experience taught Krieger how meaningful books are to Herring.

“He grew up on the East Coast and went to school in New York,” Krieger said. “It was a very high-level academic high school, and he told me one of his teachers gave him an empty notebook where you write down all the books you read. I think he still has it. This whole thing of reviewing books can be understood in the context of the fact that books are very important to him.”

While he may not read books completely anymore, Herring still reads with the help of a device that holds the book open for him.

“In his life he’s been a part of teams that were doing important work. He worked on a launch for the early space shots and lived in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and I think he feels it’s important to send these reviews to other people and contribute,” Krieger said.