Obituary: Thomas Richard Downs

Obituary: Thomas Richard Downs


Commander Tom R. Downs, USN, Ret., 91, a 57-year resident of Alexandria, who was the first Trustee Emeritus of the Alexandria Symphony, dating from the early 1990s, died on Friday, Jan. 2, 2015. A burial service with full military honors will be held Friday, May 8, 9 a.m. at Old Post Chapel, Fort Myers.

His nearly 30-year association with the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra came after his military retirement from over 30 year’s service in the U.S. Navy. For many years he was vice president in charge of ASO’s Concert Arrangement’s which included running the front of the house, greeting subscribers — most by name. Over the years, some began to call him “Mr. Symphony,” especially the young school children who might later see him on the streets.

Through the support arm of the Symphony, SOLA (Symphony Orchestra League of Alexandria) he assisted in introducing the orchestra for the Children’s Concerts for many years reaching over 8,000 during the spring. He was a force behind many of SOLA’s fundraising projects, including yard sales, auctions, assisting his late wife in her organizing day tours to historic places, and promoting peanut sales. His own specialty for bake sales was his “famous” zucchini bread — 100 loaves in most Decembers. In 2001, he received the first, and only-time-given, SOLA Volunteer of the Decade Award.

Commander Downs was born in Bath County, Ky., to the late Dell and Dixie Boaz Downs. The history of both families’ goes back to pre-Revolutionary times in Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina.

His father was a county “marshall” and maintained the prison and the courthouse. These early experiences became the source of a series of articles, “Mostly Tommy,” concerning his antics with the courthouse judges and jail trustees.

He was a prolific writer of stories for military papers under the head, “Take Five …,” a non-fiction book, about Vietnam, “Tomorrow’s My Day Off,” (published in parts in a Navy professional magazine); other short stories, novellas, and longer novels, one-act plays, and radio scripts about the Navy. He always drew on personal experiences gained in the many places he travelled in the military and the unusual circumstances in which he sometimes found himself.

In 1930, the family moved to Middletown, Ohio, where he attended public schools, graduating with honors, in 1940. He began working in the accounting department of a local manufacturing firm while attending the University of Cincinnati in the evenings. In 1942, he enlisted in the Navy and rose very rapidly, becoming one of the youngest Chief Petty Officers ever in the service — barely 21.

World War II service took him to England, preparatory to the landings in France, where he subsequently worked in planning operations with the Free French Forces, while on the staff of the U.S. Naval Forces France; then after VE Day he was transferred to an amphibious vessel in the Pacific.

After release to inactive duty in 1946, Commander Downs completed a B.S. degree at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, and worked for a contractor associated with the Atomic Energy Commission, while earning an M.A. degree from Miami during the summers.

At this point, he taught high school (the same one he attended himself) for three school years. During this period, he was active in running local junior tennis tournaments and headed a little theatre group. He performed in a “GI Trio” with American Legion fund-raising shows.

He was recalled to active duty early in the Korean War period and served on the staff of the Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic, in Norfolk, Va., and followed this service in the occupational forces of Germany on the staff of the Commander U.S. Forces Europe.

While in Germany, the National Sojourners honored him with its Americanism Service Award for off-duty teaching activities with adult Germans at the State Department’s America House, being a conduit in the gathering of children’s clothing from American families and distributing them to needy local children, a pair of baby shoes being a prized item.

The next 20 years of Naval service took him aboard ship (in the Mediterranean and Caribbean), to various logistics activities at the Naval Gun Factory, the Bureau of Naval Weapons, and the staff of the Secretary of Defense in International Security Affairs. While with the Secretary of Defense, he had a brief inspection time in Panama, and for the Secretary of the Navy a brief time throughout the Pacific concerning labor problems in shipyards.

During this time he earned two additional master’s degrees, M.B.A. and M.S. from the George Washington University, and began graduate teaching off-campus, in the evenings, at government installations, this lasting off and on for 10 years.

After retirement, he earned a Ph.D. in management from Pacific Western University. His dissertation was a Case Study Compendium of Management Fundamentals, Practices and Philosophy told through 63 original case studies. Many were tested at Southeastern University were he taught graduate management on weekends for six years.

In 1960s he served as a military advisor in the Republic of China, and later during the Vietnam War, he helped operate the port of DaNang, in charge of 5,000 U.S. and Vietnamese personnel, off-loading supply ships around the clock, and back loading the cargo to the outposts up river. While at the Defense Supply Agency, he was assigned to the Presidentially-appointed Joint Logistics Review Board, and returned briefly to Vietnam — also, Korea, Guam, the Philippines, and Japan.

When he retired from the Navy at the Naval Research and Development Center in Maryland, he was awarded the Navy Meritorious Service Medal. By the end of his career, he had earned 18 different decorations, three of them twice-earned, and four Vietnam Campaign stars. He also held four awards from the Republic of China. While in Taipei, Taiwan, he taught English to high school students on weekends, again, being the first U.S. military person to do so. He wrote stories to fit their local lives. After reading, the students retold the story in his own words, in English.

During his lifetime, Commander Downs did substantial volunteer service regardless of the country where he was stationed, including his home area of Alexandria — church boards, Boy Scout badge monitor, GWU Alumni Governing Board, PTA’s and Father’s clubs, scholarship efforts for many students, and voluntary college-level tutoring. His alma mater, Miami University, honored him in 1969 with its Bishop Medal for 22 years of world community service. He was the only military person to ever receive this award.

His love of the arts, in general, kept him in the Washington area since 1958, having come here from Norfolk, where he still maintained a vacation home until his death. The nearness of the bay and the ocean served as a constant reminder of his service time.

His wife of 41 years, Juliane Hudson Downs, preceded him in death in 1998. He is survived by his daughter Susan Downs Smouse and her husband Ted, of Austin, Texas, and his son Richard Warren Downs and his wife Dubis Irene, of Alexandria; and three grandchildren, Juliane Castle Smouse, Bryce Hudson Downs, and Daniella Dixie Downs.

The family received friends on Saturday, Jan. 10 at the Everly Wheatley Funeral Home, Alexandria. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to SOLA, the Symphony Orchestra League of Alexandria, Additional information can be found