Dr. Tom Drilling

Dr. Tom Drilling’s official portrait from the Tulare Historical Museum.
Courtesy/Tulare Historical Museum

By all accounts, Dr. Tom Drilling–an icon in Tulare for the better part of a century who died last month at the age of 96–lived a life that made a difference.

Whether he was in his home or his dental office, in his church or at large in the world, his family and friends remember him as a man of morals, humor, duty and action. Following his passing, some of them gathered at the Tulare home of his daughter, Dr. Patty Drilling-Phelps, to reminisce about his life and times.

Monsignor Rick Urizalqui, pastor at St. Aloysius Church where Tom Drilling was a longtime member, called his 30-year friend “someone whose word was heard and understood and accepted.” Drilling, he said, “lived his decisions.” Though he often found himself at the center of community business, he didn’t seek notoriety.

“Tom didn’t like the spotlight. He just wanted to enjoy his family,” Urizalqui said. “Tom was just not someone who wanted to be out in front of anything. He just wanted to do what he wanted to do and do it well.”

Strong Civic Leader

Tom Drilling often found himself involved in keeping Tulare honest. He’d been a key player in cleaning up Tulare politics after WWII and again in the last decade, and most recently he’d been carrying on the a fight against perceived corruption at the Tulare Local Health Care District.

“He’s been my lead plaintiff on a voluntary basis in a couple of major cases,” said attorney and longtime friend Michael Lampe. “He was the only one who, quite frankly, don’t be offended, had the balls to do it.”

It wasn’t just courage Drilling brought to the fight for honesty in government. He also carried respectability with him says attorney Dennis Mederos, who has known Drilling since he was a childhood patient.

“It lent credibility to the whole action that was being taken,” he said. “To have a lead plaintiff who had the credibility of Tom Drilling gave importance to the whole action in and of itself.”

Early Service

Drilling, the oldest of five siblings, came to Tulare in 1936 with his family. He graduated from Tulare High in 1938 in a class that included Dan and Don Hillman, as well as future Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr.

He would follow Zumwalt into military service during WWII, but not until after attending CSUF and taking his dentistry training at USC. He served on the medical staff of Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz during his first tour starting in 1944 and was recalled for duty again to treat returning Marines during the Korean War.

In between, he managed to start his dentistry practice in Tulare in 1946, lead the Tulare Red Devils fast-pitch softball team to a state championship in 1948 as a player-manager, and got himself elected to the city council in 1951, serving as mayor at just 30 years old.

The association between the Lampe and Drilling families now spans generations, and after Drilling’s death, Lampe discovered a letter home his father wrote during his own service during the Korean War.

“Was surprised to hear Tom Drilling is the new mayor,” the letter from John Lampe reads. “I agree Tulare needs a good housecleaning, and he should be a good man to do the job. Politics are just like the Army: The ones in the clique have it easy, and the heck with the rest.”

Cleaning House

Drilling was looking to curb organized prostitution and gambling, along with the corruption in city politics that allowed it to go on when he ran for office. Before he returned to active duty, he got the job done and persuaded the city’s corrupt police chief and justice court judge to resign in the process.

Drilling had to go at the job again during the last decade, signing up to front a series of lawsuits against City Hall and members of the city council in an effort to force openness in Tulare’s governance. By the time the dust had returned to Earth and the cases settled, things were on the up-and-up at City Hall, and Tulare’s vice mayor had resigned.

At the time of his death, Drilling had become a plaintiff in a case filed by citizens against the directors and managers at the Tulare Local Health Care District as part of a wider thrust to clean house there.

Efforts so far have led to the replacement of two of the board’s members, with a recall of a third in the works.

An Inspiring Wager

Dr. Patty Drilling-Phelps, Sister Kathy Drilling and Patricia Drilling share a moment’s laughter while
showing off a portrait of the late Dr. Tom Drilling. Drilling, who was Tulare’s 2014 Man of the Year, died last
month at 96. Dave Adalian/Valley Voice

The resignation of the vice mayor in 2010 was the center of a bet Drilling lost to Lampe, and the payoff–a framed dollar bill that hangs in Lampe’s office–gives Lampe lasting inspiration.

“I said, ‘Tom, I’ll bet you at this upcoming mediation that we get (the vice mayor) to resign,’” Lampe recalled. “And he said, ‘That’ll never happen.’ I said, ‘I’ll bet you a dollar.’”

Drilling lost, and Lampe displayed his trophy proudly as he retold the story.

“This has been in my office since the day he gave it to me,” he said. “It’s gonna sit in my office until I retire.”

Mederos says the inspiration Drilling engendered spread beyond his immediate circle and though the community he loved when he took the lead on these contentious issues.

“It became a lawsuit from somebody who had a long history of caring about Tulare and it had credibility he brought to the litigation,” Mederos said. “So people looked at that and said to themselves, ‘This is being brought by someone of stature in our community. We better start listening.’ And, that was the difference.”

Being a leader, however, is not without risks. Yet Drilling was able to bear them and the consequences.

“Tom knew by injecting himself into that dispute there were going to be a lot of people in this community who really liked him who were going to get really, really mad,” Lampe said. “He knew that, but he did it. He had the courage to step up to the plate, and he did the same thing in the (ongoing dispute with Tulare Regional Medical Center’s directors and management).”

Sailing True

It may or may not have been his former service in the Navy that gave Drilling such an even keel. Whatever the source, the high standards he set for his community he also kept at home, his wife and children remember.

He also inspired his family by example, and Drilling-Phelps says he specifically taught her how to be decisive. This, she said, is what he taught her: “You can look at the problem you have, but you can’t just wallow in it to the point where you don’t make a decision and become paralyzed. But when you make that decision, you also have to accept the consequences.”

Patricia Drilling, 96, Tom’s wife of 72 years, remembered her husband’s stance on impeccability.

“You said it, and that’s your oath,” she remembered.

Tom Drilling was often a source for calmness during crisis.

“That’s what Tom did: He wasn’t afraid to be the voice of reason,” Mederos said. “At a young age and at an old age, he was willing to stand up for what he perceived as right and not be afraid to let this community know that that was the position that he was taking.”

It was a habit he carried on to his final days, and it was a habit her father hoped would inspire others to follow in his footsteps, Drilling-Phelps said.

“Yet he knew he was older and he’d say to me, ‘God, I wish somebody else would stand up, because I’m getting tired of doing this. Isn’t there someone else?’” she said. “But, then he’d come around to it and say, ‘Well, you know, I guess I gotta do something about this.’”

No Guts, No Glory

Seventeen years separate Drilling-Phelps and her oldest sister, Sister Kathleen Drilling, and she remembers a different time in her parents’ lives when she and their now-deceased sister Christine Drilling Glogow were small children.

“Chris and I grew up in a time when Mom and Dad were young and vibrant. Growing up, I heard stories of that time,” Sister Kathy said. “I only found out later that there were threats they were going to kidnap Chris and I. They ran him (her father) off the road on the way home from Porterville and threatened to say that he had hit someone or hit somebody and took off, a hit-and-run type thing.”

Even as a child, Sister Kathy was impressed with her father’s fortitude, and still carries the sentiment he passed on today.

“As a little kid when you hear this stuff about your dad, you think, ‘Wow, my dad–’ You (Lampe) said he’s pretty courageous,” she said. “I’ll put it that way, because I don’t want to be quoted in the paper as the nun who said he had balls, but he did.”

Famous Father Problems

There is a downside to having a father who is both very moral and very popular, Sister Kathy found out.

“I grew up knowing my dad was somebody in the community. Now, there is a good part of that and a part that can be called a handicap,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything without someone calling my mom or my dad.”

She found out how true that was when she decided to ride down Tulare Avenue on the hood of a car. Tom Drilling was waiting for her and her explanation when she got home. It was a part of fatherhood he liked, his wife said.

“I’m here to say he enjoyed every time they thought he knew something,” Patricia Drilling said.

And nobody in the Drilling household got anything they didn’t deserve, she remembers.

“He was fair whatever came up. That I remember. He was even fair with me,” she joked. “He had big dreams. He saw things that needed to be right.”

Sister Kathy thinks what her father really wanted was the best for everyone.

“You also had the sense he loved this town, he loved the people in this town,” she said. “He wanted us to have a town that we could run around in and be safe. It was a wonderful childhood.”

The Funny Stuff

The life of Dr. Tom Drilling wasn’t all serious business. How could it be when he was a dentist with a name like that? In fact, the funny coincidence between his name and his job gained him a tiny bit of national recognition.

“Somebody put him in Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” Sister Kathy said.

He had a very serious side–“People believed whatever he said, that it was true and you didn’t need to question it,” his wife said–but it was underscored with humor that worked to a purpose.

“He also had a lot of comedy within that,” Drilling-Phelps said. “He kind of said he was serious, but he wasn’t really serious. He would use humor to get the point across.”

When Sister Kathy was young, there had been a serious family meeting when her father announced he had been recalled to active duty during the Korean War. When she was a senior in high school, her father called a very similar meeting.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! My dad’s going to Vietnam!’ So, I asked, ‘Are you going to Vietnam?’ and he said, ‘No, but your mother has been recalled into the service. And, I look at Mom, and Mom salutes,” Sister Kathy said. “Chris and I look at each other, and then they said, ‘We’re going to have a baby.’ And I thought, ‘What am I going to tell my friends?’”

Man of the Year

Drilling’s humor and good sense also served him well while making his acceptance speech when he was selected as Tulare’s Man of the Year in 2014. But, he almost never got the chance. Despite all he’d done for his community, he’d always been passed over for some reason.

“Somehow he just missed out as it went on,” said Mederos, who sat on the committee that selected Drilling for the award. “I know when the name came up, we saw Patty’s nomination that had been set aside for a couple years–“

“More than a few years!” Drilling-Phelps said with a laugh. “I just forgot about it.”

Drilling was a shoe-in once the oversight had been realized.

“The committee immediately said that’s the man we want,” Mederos said.

On the night of the awards ceremony, Drilling was the last speaker, and he read the crowd perfectly, his youngest daughter recalls.

“He looked around and said, ‘Everyone here is bored to death and they’re falling asleep, and I’m the last one, and I’m not going to give that same speech everyone else gave,’” Drilling-Phelps said.

A Mass was held in Drilling’s honor on May 22 at St. Aloysius Church. Monsignor Urizalqui delivered the homily at the celebration.

“This Mass is our time of celebrating Tom’s life and faith, his service, his humor, his love and straightforwardness,” he said. “It is a time of recalling a life well lived. We thank God for the gift of Tom Drilling and the gifts we received through him and we express our faith that even now he is with the God he served so well. May the light of heaven shine on him forever.”

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  1. Amen! Dr. Drilling helped make Tulare the exceptional community it is. Having worked for seven small cities in California, I should know! Let’s hope we haven’t lost the knack and/or good luck of having such outstanding citizens committed to our community.

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