HomeDonor Spotlight: Tom and Dianne BlackburnEducationAtlas University
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Donor Spotlight: Tom and Dianne Blackburn

Donor Spotlight: Tom and Dianne Blackburn

4 Mins
August 3, 2020

“Do you like cruising?”

It seemed a logical question. They were both in their 60s, and they just met. But she had never been on a cruise.

“Why yes, I do like cruising!” she replied. Who wouldn’t like to go on a cruise, right?

However, Tom Blackburn wasn’t thinking about cruises aboard Royal Caribbean or Norwegian Cruise Lines. He meant in a car. An old car. With a bunch of other people, men “in white socks and sandals standing around in a parking lot filled with old cars.”

It was an interest Tom enjoyed as far back as when he was a little kid, when his uncle Dan owned a Lincoln-Mercury dealership. “I just loved that place,” Tom remembers. “He sold the dealership at the end of the 1956 model year when I was 13, but the bug had bitten me.”

“Do you know how many old cars I’ve seen?” Tom’s wife Dianne adds with a mischievous giggle (they have been married since 2011). It is obvious that she enjoys supporting her husband’s love of old cars. And because he supports her new-found interest in cruises, they have also cruised the open seas. In fact, they’ve lost track of how many actual cruises they have taken. “Twenty-five or thirty,” Dianne estimates.

Tom liked her immediately; “You just know when someone has a good mind,” he admits.

But that should come as no surprise for someone who was introduced to Ayn Rand forty years prior to that first date.

There’s nothing as significant as a human face. Nor as eloquent. We can never really know another person, except by our first glance at him. Because, in that glance, we know everything. Even though we’re not always wise enough to unravel the knowledge.
Ayn Rand - The Fountainhead

It was in 1967; Tom was in his early twenties, and a friend handed him Atlas Shrugged and made him promise to read it. Promise to. He got about 300 pages in, and he could see where Rand was going. He was hooked. What Tom understood early on in his reading is that

people are truly motivated by self-interest whether they recognize it or not.  While we are all taught that love of our fellow man “should” be our primary motivation (i.e. altruism), it isn't, and that causes cognitive dissonance, making people not quite as happy as they expect to be.

Tom quickly followed Atlas Shrugged with The Fountainhead, and then he made his way through the rest of her books. Reading Rand “pointed my life in a different direction,” he says. Atlas Shrugged, however, remains his favorite. After all, “Galt’s speech tells you everything you need to know.”

Thirty years ago, he found The Atlas Society through a circuitous route. Living in St. Louis, he joined a Meetup group where he met someone who introduced him to The Gateway Objectivists. It was from within that group that he learned about The Atlas Society.

So naturally, an early question Tom asked Dianne was “What do you think of Ayn Rand?” Something told him that Dianne could have been a character in one of her books. Dianne had heard of Ayn Rand but had “never studied her.” She was open to learning more, however. She began with The Fountainhead, and like so many others, the criticism that she had heard about Rand did not match what she read. She moved on to Atlas Shrugged and then her other books. “When you study her, you see that she was such a smart woman. And really, with everything happening right now? She already knew this would happen,” Dianne reflects.

Perhaps one of the most surprising discoveries of their courtship was when they learned that they were both born and raised in East St. Louis, IL. And in fact, they attended the very same Catholic school but were in grades one year apart, never having  met, as far as they know.

Both Tom and Dianne were born in the 1940’s, right across the river from St. Louis, MO. Dianne makes it clear, “East St. Louis used to be an All-American City; it hasn’t been for a long time.” And it is true. In 1959, Look Magazine and the National Civic League awarded the city the All-American City designation, which honored civic excellence and a cooperative spirit. It was only a few years before this, in 1952, that Chuck Berry started a three-year stint at the East St, Louis Cosmopolitan Club, and in 1956 - the same year Tom’s uncle Dan sold his dealership - that Ike and Tina Turner met in an East St. Louis nightclub, the Manhattan Club.

Nearly fifty years after East St. Louis celebrated itself as the All-American City, Tom and Dianne found themselves once again looking for love. In the intervening years, they both had previously married, both had children, and both had long careers - his in the Air Force and then as a professor and hers as a nurse and healthcare case manager. They weren’t the only ones to have changed.  Their hometown had changed dramatically since they left.

East St. Louis had been a railroad town and an industrial center for decades. It reached its peak population of around 82,000 in the 1960s as Tom and Dianne closed out their teen years. But that was a long time ago. In the 60s, the large factories rapidly abandoned the city. According to Data USA, a site that publishes U.S. government data, by 1970, 70% of the businesses had closed or left for other cities. The population has dropped to a third of what it once was, to around 25,000 today, and 43.1% of those still there are living below the poverty line (as compared to 13.1% in the country). A 2019 article on crime in the Belleville News-Democrat reports that “The median household annual income is less than $20,000. The unemployment rate is almost twice the national rate. The school system is ranked as one of the worst in the state, and the public housing projects are the most dangerous areas in the city.” The only time anyone hears about East St. Louis any more is when a report, such as the 2019 KMOV-TV report based on the FBI’s most recent data, lists East St. Louis as the number one most dangerous city with a population over 10,000.

Imagine their surprise, and delight, when the story unfolded that they went to school together. There’s something about finding someone from home, even if home is a city that no longer exists except in the memories of people like Tom and Dianne.

Love is the expression of one's values, the greatest reward you can earn for the moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person, the emotional price paid by one man for the joy he receives from the virtues of another."
Ayn Rand – “The Virtue of Selfishness”

Having been married for nine years, the couple are now in their 70’s and enjoying retirement, their time with each other, and the love they share for their three grandchildren. They both agree that “this time, we’re getting it right.”

They have lived in many places, as they searched for their own Galt’s Gulch, before landing in Cape Girardeau, MO. They started in Illinois because some of their family live in Fairview Heights, Illinois, and they wanted to be near them. They could not bring themselves to remain in Illinois, however. Like so many others, “We had become disgusted with the political situation in Illinois.” They met a couple who lived in a resort community for older people. Life there was described as “like living on a cruise ship.” So, they found a cottage at a retirement community in Tennessee, a manageable five-hour drive from Fairview Heights. But it didn’t take long to realize that this was not where they wanted to retire; it felt more like an old folks’ home than a resort. They weren’t ready for that. They were not looking to slow down. They wanted a chance at a life that could truly be lived.

Then, on a trip to visit Tom’s brother in Cape Girardeau, they found it - a place to call home. They packed up their belongings, left the Tennessee retirement village, and moved to the southern Missouri city that sits along the west banks of the Mississippi River. And they couldn’t be happier.

When you know what you want–you go toward it. Sometimes you go very fast, and sometimes only an inch a year. Perhaps you feel happier when you go fast. I don’t know. I’ve forgotten the difference long ago, because it really doesn’t matter, so long as you move.”
Ayn Rand – We the Living

As for retirement, Dianne advises, more than anything else, “Look forward to it! When people say you will find nothing to do, they just aren’t looking hard enough.” The couple has a world map to remind them of all there is yet to do. They place a pin into the map whenever they visit somewhere new. And they have filled that map with a lot of pins.

Of course, life has changed dramatically since the introduction of COVID-19. And Tom and Dianne have found it particularly difficult to adjust to the shutdowns. They miss socializing. They miss playing cards and traveling. They worry that they won’t be able to travel again.

But one thing they do have to look forward to is the August 8th Cape Summer Classic collector car auction. Tom is in the market for a car, and he is excited to see what is for sale. They only hope to find more opportunities to live their lives fully.

Achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death.
Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged

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Political Philosophy