When Tommy Allen dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, his father made it clear he would not be welcome to laze around the house.
So, he secured an apprenticeship with a local plumber and, while still a teenager, founded his own company, Tommy Allen Plumbing.
Allen eventually settled in the Willow Spring community of Wake County, married his high school sweetheart and raised three children. He spent the next 40 years helping the people of his community – day or night, sun or snow – with all manner of plumbing and drainage issues.
He inspired his son, Justin Allen, now a master plumber with his own company. Justin Allen worked side by side with his father, beginning in high school. His father’s work ethic, and generosity, knew no bounds – when the phone rang, Allen was off.
“He didn’t say no. ...He would drop what he was doing and he would go,” Justin Allen said.
Allen, 59, died last month after a years-long battle with colon cancer.
He maintained that work ethic through most of his treatment. After his diagnosis in 2011, Allen had surgery to remove 18 inches of his colon. He returned to work, but still had many rounds of chemotherapy ahead. He endured 49 hours straight of chemotherapy every other week, and never missed a day of work, his family said, wearing a fanny pack so the medicine could pump through his medical port.
Making things happen
This effort shocked his doctors, who had never seen anything quite like it, but it did not surprise his family.
“Tommy used to say, ‘You know, you can’t wait for things to happen. You’ve got to make things happen.’ He made things happen,” said Diane Allen, his wife of 36 years.
Allen was a forward-thinking businessman and took an early interest in what computers could do for his company. In the late 1980s, he reached out to Ron Bohmuller, a computer-savvy customer who help install battery-charged bubble jet printers in his truck and to power a laptop through the cigarette lighter.
Years later, after Hurricane Fran hit, when Allen learned that Bohmuller’s family was still without power, he showed up with a generator and installed it at charge.
“We didn’t ask him. It’s just what a nice guy he was,” Bohmuller said.
Allen was particularly generous with his elderly clients, many of whom were on fixed incomes. If their well needed a new pump, he often made repairs or installed them free of charge.
“He was a good guy,” said David Mangum, a residential contractor who worked with Allen for more than 30 years. “Always thought about other people more so than himself.”
Mangum remembers when his pipes froze, and he had young children at home. Allen showed up quickly to thaw them, but refused payment.
No diploma, no job
At one point, Allen employed more than a dozen workers, many of whom started as teens. Some wanted to leave high school to expedite their training, but Allen wouldn’t allow them to apprentice full time until they graduated.
When he wasn’t working, Allen took great interest in coon hunting, cowboy-style shooting, bow hunting, and other sports. But perhaps his favorite pastime was raising mules. He was a charter member of the Carolina Mule Association, showed his animals at the state fair, and would go as far as Missouri in search of new livestock.
For Allen’s funeral, longtime friend Johnny Smith, owner of Golden Leaf Carriage, donated a team of horses and carriage to see Allen from the funeral service to his gravesite.
Allen’s charitable work went beyond his plumbing customers. He and his wife were raising one of their eight grandchildren, and he was known throughout the community for helping folks out, quietly. He donated to local non-profits, and helped many local businesses establish themselves or stay afloat over the years.
“Tommy, you know, he never wanted credit for any of his charitable giving. He always wanted to be anonymous,” his wife said. “He just had a giving heart, and he did everything he could to help anyone in need.”
Thomas Earl Allen
Born: May 18, 1955, in Wake County.
Family: Married Diane Medlin Allen in 1978; had three children, Justin Allen, Jenny Jones and Brittany Lewter; eight grandchildren.
Career: Worked for local plumbing companies for a few years before founding Tommy Allen Plumbing while still a teenager in the 1970s.
Died: April 11.