Tom Larwood

Dr. Tom Larwood during Christmastime a couple of years ago.

Photo by Christian Larwood

Dr. Tom Larwood, a leader in the search for a valley fever vaccine, died Sept. 6 at age 90. Kristen Kong recalls her grandfather's optimism and the example of friendship set by Larwood and his wife, former Kern County Supervisor Pauline Larwood. 

I’m from Hawaii. And I used to spend my summers in Bakersfield. Yup, Bakersfield. And, boy, did my grandpa get such amusement from telling people just that.

But now I have a lifetime of memories of a man who was more than Grandpa. He was Tom Larwood.

Grandpa was resilient, a glass-half-full kind of man. Yet he faced trials that’d get even the best of us down. In 1955, less than a year before the vaccine became widely available, he contracted polio with my uncle, then age 3. It became a lifelong battle. Moreover, our family lost my 1-year-old cousin to cancer, and macular degeneration eventually made Grandpa legally blind. But he was not a cynic or complainer; it simply wasn’t his nature. Grandpa’s favorite one-liner was, “Do what you can and don’t worry about what you can’t.”

He and my equally remarkable grandma, Pauline, were married for 44 years and were best friends. He cherished his seven children and the nine of us grandchildren. Just being in the room with us brought him pure joy, which I saw in his smile and heard in his laughter. He was the type of dad who made it home for dinner and “showed up,” despite his schedule, and the grandpa who shared wisdom and remembered birthdays. He even braided wire into my hair so I could look like one of my favorite characters, Pippi Longstocking. Grandpa loved our hugs and backrubs, and relished exchanging stories. He played the piano, clarinet and cello, and singing around the dinner table was not uncommon.

Grandpa loved science and people, many knowing him as a physician and valley fever pioneer. He practiced medicine for over 50 years and never really retired, staying involved in valley fever vaccine efforts and substituting as a jail physician. Polio made him particularly interested in rehabilitation medicine, too. He was the first medical director of the rehabilitation program at Kern General Hospital (KGH), now Kern Medical Center, and was a medical adviser to the California State Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and Bakersfield Regional Rehabilitation Hospital. He lectured extensively. Afterward, he was the first full-time director of internal medicine at KGH, but later returned to private practice because he decided he’d rather do the work than tell others how to.

Putting himself to work as a medical missionary in South Korea was ill-fated. Polio prevented him from reaching his goal of building a hospital. Still, the work continued on his site, and Wonju Severance Christian Hospital is the largest university hospital in central Korea. The country stayed with him. He had studied Korean at Yale Institute of Far Eastern Languages, and I recall him breaking into song to test his memory of the anthem. His time there also played a part when he decided to add a fifth child to his family and adopted a 2-year-old from South Korea — my mom.

Grandpa was brilliant. I was amazed at his intelligence and ability to remember things so much better than me. Even without sight, he could be in the car and tell us exactly where we were and how many minutes were left until our destination. He was involved in more than a dozen organizations, which varied from American Lung Association to Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, many of which he served on the board or as chairman or president. He even brought solar to Kern County as co-founder of Kern Solar Energy Society. Last April, Valley Fever Americas Foundation presented my grandparents with the Hans Einstein Lifetime Achievement Award.

Even as a child, I knew Grandpa was special because everywhere we went someone would stop to say hello. He was devoted to his community, always wanting to give more. He was a man of faith who attended church on Sundays, and a loyal guy who made time for friends, several of whom he enjoyed coffee with twice a week at Lorene’s. My grandpa was the heart of my family, a patriarch who left a legacy not many could match. He simply had a beautiful soul and will be forever missed.

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