Tom Ross, an unforgettable friend of students, animals and the arts
Published 9:00 am Thursday, November 30, 2023
If you were to use the newest and most powerful AI software to design what a college art teacher should look and act like, it would not be able to create a character more perfect to fit that criterion than Tom Ross.
Ross, who taught so many of us during his long career at Copiah-Lincoln Community College, passed away earlier this week.
Hired to teach art at Co-Lin in 1975, Ross inspired and guided students until his retirement in 2013 and in doing so, became synonymous with the Fine Arts department at CLCC.
He was tall and broad across the shoulders but carried himself with a gentleness that instantly put you at ease.
Finding out that Tom was just 73 when he passed away made me do some quick math in regard to my time as a 19-year-old sophomore in his Art Appreciation class over 20 years ago.
It dawned on me that when I sat in his classroom, Tom was just 50 years old. As someone who turned 42 last week myself, he felt infinitely older and wiser than a mere 50 when I was his student.
Some of that had to do with his magnificent facial hair, as even at 50 years old, his beard was more salt than pepper. Tom could and did serve as a Santa Claus stand-in year-round with that beard.
His classroom during my time at Co-Lin was in the Ewing Fine Arts Building. It had multiple levels of seats in a small auditorium style and when you walked in, you felt like you were in a college classroom, no longer sitting in the little desks from which we had learned in middle and high school.
There were a pair of tower style speakers that framed the front of the room, mounted on brackets along the wall. When you walked in to find your seat, Tom would be standing at the front behind a podium as music poured out of those speakers at a loud, but respectful volume.
It might be The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan or Parliament-Funkadelic coming out of the speakers when you entered Tom’s classroom.
On the first day of class, after he covered the syllabus, he gave a quick note where he said that the music that he played between classes was for his enjoyment. You may be familiar with the song or artist, or you may not, he told us. What you shouldn’t ever do is complain about it to me though because I’m not playing it for your sake, he would add.
I for one, never complained and found myself going to his class as early as I could so I could listen along with Tom. I’d feel a sort of pride when he played four or five songs from the ’60s and ’70s and I was already familiar with them all, as music has always been something I find enjoyment in.
When the music stopped, Tom Ross stood at the front of the room and taught. He used slides and overhead projection to show us examples of cave paintings in the first week and never slowed down from there.
He rarely cancelled class and taught for the entire period every time he stood behind that podium.
I can remember that I was supposed to have a test on September 11, 2001 at 11 a.m.
I went in at 9:30 a.m. to ask him if the test would still be happening, I needed to know if I still had time to try and cram in the next 90 minutes, despite the national nightmare that was unfolding on TV.
He was at the front of his classroom, alone and listening to music while grading papers when I went into to room.
I imagine we’ll still have class today, he told me when I asked if he thought school would be cancelled. About 30 minutes later, an email went out to the campus that said classes had been called off for the remainder of the day.
Tom came and found me hanging out with my friends between the Ewing building and Smith Hall. He let me know that class had been cancelled, but we’d have our scheduled test the next time class met.
His tests were packed with information that had been covered in class. There were never any surprises, but you could not fake your way to a high grade in his class.
He further nurtured the more serious art students with classes taught in drawing and painting.
There is plenty that I heard while sitting in a college classroom that went in one ear and out the other. Yet there are still words and phrases from my time learning under Tom Ross that rattle around in my head to this day.
Rococo paintings from France, the pop stylings of Andy Warhol, and German expressionism.
Tom covered it all with passion and knowledge and insight.
That’s what great teachers do, right? They make you care because of how much they care.
And as an artist, he could practice what he taught.
One day he put up a slide of something he’d painted, I think it was a sunset across a mesa in Arizona. He said something like, “I was riding my motorcycle in Arizona and had to stop and get out a small canvas and paint this sunset.”
Do you see? Tom Ross was one cool dude.
He loved animals deeply and was a driving force for many years at the Brookhaven Animal Rescue League.
He dressed up as Santa Claus and took pictures with local pets and even sometimes young children as an annual BARL fundraiser. He told The Daily Leader in 2018 that he hadn’t posed for a picture with a reptile yet, but was, “waiting for the day I’ll get a snake to come.”
He was an outdoorsman who cherished and respected nature.
As I got to know him a little better over the years after my time as a Co-Lin student, it became apparent that his faith was a reflection of his own personality. Strong, but not showy. He was a beloved member of Decell UMC in Wesson.
We didn’t know how good we had it, we alums of Brookhaven Academy and Bogue Chitto and Mendenhall High School and West Lincoln and all the other schools that feed students year after year to the campus of Co-Lin in Wesson.
We didn’t know how lucky we were then to watch and learn and listen to an artist the caliber of Tom Ross, the type of teacher that leaves a mark on your life like brushstrokes on a canvas.
Cliff Furr is the sports editor at The Daily Leader. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.