Foundation of Work Yields Legacy of Giving

Ashley Family 1969 portrait
Tom and Mary Ashley had 10 children who went on to earn 15 degrees from the University of Missouri. The entire family gathered in this 1969 portrait. Front: Tom, Cindy, Susie, Marti and Mary. Back: Jim, Patty, Mary Kay, Mike, Janie, Jennifer and John.

Ashley family has long history of philanthropy to University of Missouri.

The work ethic of Tom Ashley, MD BS Med ’42, a distinguished surgeon for more than 50 years in Springfield, Missouri, is ingrained in family lore.

Most days, he began with predawn calisthenics, left the house before the rest of the family ate breakfast and came home late to a reheated dinner. He insisted on rounding on his hospitalized patients on the weekend. He even returned to the hospital in the middle of the night if one of his patients was struggling.

But perhaps the most telling example came when, on one of his scheduled days off, Ashley piloted his own plane from Springfield to his hometown of West Plains, Missouri, to perform surgery. The landing gear didn’t work, and he had to resort to a belly landing. The plane skidded off the runway, but he wasn’t hurt, so after arranging for the aircraft to be removed and repaired, he caught a ride to the hospital and proceeded with the surgery.

For Tom Ashley, even a plane crash wasn’t a valid excuse to miss work.

“He was good to us kids, but he really took his career very seriously and caring for his patients very seriously,” said one of his daughters, Susan Pomerenke. “He loved his work. I never heard my father complain about office politics or hospital politics. He just put his head down and worked.”

The family matriarch, Mary Ashley, was just as diligent. She had 10 children to raise, and getting them where they needed to be every day was a feat of logistical magic. When something broke around the house, she fixed it. When her daughters needed dresses to wear to church on Easter or gowns for high school formals, she sewed them.

“Despite her having 10 kids, we all felt like she paid special attention to each of us individually,” said John Ashley, MD ’70, the eldest son and one of two doctors among the Ashley offspring. “That is of course impossible, but she made us feel that way.”

Tom and Mary met in Columbia while she was a nurse and he was a student completing a bachelor’s degree in medicine — the University of Missouri offered only the first two years of medical school in those days. They married before he finished his medical degree at Harvard. His surgical training was delayed a few times for service in the Navy — he was stationed in China during World War II and stateside in Oakland, California, during the Korean War — before beginning his career in Springfield.

Mary and Tom have both passed away — Mary in 1993 and Tom in 2002 — but their legacy lives on at MU, which has benefited greatly from the family’s generosity. Their contributions to the university go beyond the tuition money that helped nine of their children earn a total of 15 degrees from MU and beyond the payments for the football season tickets on the 45-yard-line that have been in the family for more than 50 years. With their friend Hugh Stephenson, BS Med ’43, Tom and Mary helped start MU’s Medical School Foundation.

“When they stopped sending kids to college, they had a little money left over, and instead of going out and buying second houses or spending money lavishly, my parents gave money to create two endowments through the Medical School Foundation,” John said.

Those endowments were the Thomas E. and Mary M. Ashley Memorial Endowment for Medical Education and the Cindy Ashley Endowment in Genetic Research.

Cindy was the youngest Ashley child, and she died tragically in a house fire at age 8. Cindy had Down syndrome, which spurred the Ashleys’ interest in genetic research. The fund is currently supporting Shiyou Chen, PhD, DVM, the division chief of surgical research, and is an example of the School of Medicine using private donations to enhance precision medicine research.

Another area of family interest is promoting high-quality health care in Springfield and rural Missouri. Tom always advocated for medical and nursing students to train in Springfield. Although Tom didn’t live to see the creation of MU’s Springfield Clinical Campus, his son Michael Ashley, MD, created a fund in his parents’ honor to support SCC students who demonstrate excellence in surgery. The family also enhanced and targeted another scholarship fund administered by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks to help SCC students.

Michael himself returned to Springfield in 1982 after his surgical training and practiced alongside his dad for 15 years. He got to see another side of his father, who was a no-nonsense disciplinarian at home but a jokester with the nurses and staff and an endlessly patient teacher with students and residents.

“He was easily the best doctor and surgeon I ever met,” Michael said. “Now, that’s a son saying something wonderful about his dad, but it’s also true.”

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Family Honors

Three members of the Ashley family have received MU School of Medicine Alumni Awards. Tom was given the Medical Alumni Service Award in 1975, John received the Young Alumni Award in 1988 and Michael got the Honorary Alumni Award in 2018.