Mary Ellen Ton 1933-1980-2013: The woman with two dashes

Linda Ellis, in her beautiful poem “The Dash“, tells the story of a man recounting the life of a friend; emphasizing  the most important part of life is “the dash”, that time between the date of one’s birth and the date of one’s death. Mary Ellen Ton, my mom, was a woman with two dashes.  Let me explain…

Mom was nearly killed in a devastating fire on January 4, 1980. In fact, the doctors at Wishard’s Burn Unit told us in the hours followingMETwBraxton the fire that should would not survive her injuries. Burned over almost 75% of her body, the majority being 3rd degree, lungs that suffered smoke and heat damage, and a broken back from her jump from a second floor window, we honestly didn’t know whether to ask God to save her, or to take her.  Countless surgeries later, It would be after Easter before she returned home to begin the incredibly painful physical therapy.

We have often said, the mom who raised us died in the fire on January 4, 1980. The woman that rose from those ashes was not the same woman that raised us. We love them both dearly, and we learned so much from both of them.

Mary Ellen Ton B.F. (before fire) was a beautiful woman. She was a vivacious, energetic 18 year old when she married my dad and embarked on her first two major roles, that of a minister’s wife and a mother. She would be by dad’s side from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Parr, Lafayette, Evansville, and finally Indianapolis.  She was a stay-at-home mom, raising four rambunctious kids, while at the same time being the quintessential minister’s wife, teaching Sunday School, hosting dinners, and making sure the four of us were on our best behavior.

As we grew older, mom went back to work as a book keeper, but kept up with mothering and teaching.  She taught my Sunday School class for years (which made it extremely difficult to cut class!). One lesson she based on the song “I Just Want to Celebrate” by Rare Earth. As a teenager, I probably thought it was lame…but I still remember it 40+ years later.

As the decade of the 70’s came to a close, I can remember sitting in our car at the University of Indianapolis where we attended accounting classes together talking about life, religion, family and, yes, even  politics. At the age of 21 or 22, I was just beginning to question the status quo of my faith. Little did we know, sitting in the parking lot on Hanna Avenue, life was about to change…for all of us.

41g6Mv-kW8L._SL500_SY346_The events of January 4, 1980, as well as her struggles with God through the aftermath are well documented in her book (“The Flames Shall Not Consume You“). What may not be so well documented is the profound effect those events would have on who she was, what she believed and how she lived…and on how we would ALL live.

Her views of and her relationship with God would change dramatically. I would characterize her beliefs (and frankly mine as well) pre-fire like Billy Graham’s and more like John Wesley Spong’s post-fire.

Mary Ellen Ton AF (after fire) , was also a beautiful woman, but in a different way. She would turn that crucible of the fire into a new book, a new career as a speaker, and new found confidence in who she was. Incredibly, just a few short years after being nursed back to health by the “Angels of Wishard”, as she called them, mom joined the staff at Wishard’s Burn Unit as a doctor-patient liaison. Who better to help those critically burned to understand what was happening to them than someone who had literally laid in their bed? She would go on to complete her bachelor’s degree at IUPUI while in her 60’s. She would become a mentor, a muse, and a confidant to all of us (and to many others not in her immediate family). In the 33 years since the fire, she would be a significant part of her five grandson’s lives, see several of them marry and see her family grow with great-grandchildren through marriage as well as the birth of a great-grandson.

In short, you could say, the Mary Ellen Ton most of us know, was born on January 4, 1980. Both Mary Ellen’s will be desperately missed. We will miss our mom, but I will also miss my spiritual guide.

On the Sunday morning after mom’s passing, I attended church with my dad (no, the church did not fall down, nor were there any lightning bolts from the sky), the closing song was “I Am Free”. Written by Jon Egan (Copyright 2004 Vertical Songs), it begins:

Through you the blind will see
Through you the mute will sing
Through you the dead will rise
Through you all hearts will praise
Through you the darkness flees
Through you my heart screams I am free
I am free to run
I am free to dance
I am free to live my life for you
I am free, I am free

I know right now, mom is doing something she has not been able to do for 33 years…she is snapping her fingers, clapping her hands, and, dancing, and singing at the top of her lungs because she is free.

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.


  1. Kathleen McClanahan-Gruhl says

    I agree with your friend who said . . . I WANT A LOVE BUTTON on FaceBook!


  2. Paul Kirkeiner says

    Wow what an amazing women Jeff and a beautiful written summary of her life. I am sure she will be missed but as you say she is now free!

  3. Mitchell says

    It welled up again today at work when a man with his children stood at the bottom of the escalator holding a crayon sign…”Mimi”

  4. Anonymous says

    The story of Mary Ellen Ton’s “dashes” 1933-1980-2013 has SO inspired me! Thank you Jeff for sharing her story.

    Rest in Peace, Mary Ellen Ton

    ~Linda Ellis (Author of The Dash)

  5. Bill Sanders says

    I’m sorry for your loss Jeff. I would have loved to have met your mom. She sounds like a fantastic woman.

  6. Anonymous says

    I lost a wonderful inspiring mother as well. I relate your feeling for an amazing women. Your parents guided you to be the man you are today a great man indeed.

  7. Charlene Williams says

    The is absolutely a beautiful way to celebrate the life of your mother. What a blessing to be able to experience your mom twice in one life-time. I would love the opportunity to read her book. She sound like a fascinating woman. Thank you for sharing her story with us. Her light definitely shines through you. I have always been impressed by your professionalism and thought for others. Thank you again for sharing this wonderful tribute.

    Charlene Williams – Goodwill Industries of Central SCSEP

  8. Patricia Simpkins says

    Jeff- This is a lovely tribute to your mother. When my time comes I only hope my sons are as appreciative of me as you are of your mother. She had to be a beautiful woman because you are a beautiful man. Patricia Simpkins.

  9. Roxane Piepenbrok says

    Jeff, what a great son you are to compose such a wonderful tribute to your mother. Your mother’s legacy and light lives on through you. Thank you for sharing the story of your mom with others. It is inspiring.

  10. says

    I have wanted to know about Mary Ellen for years. I called the hospital, the Baptist association where your dad was pastor,.. I tried so many ways! Until today! I hold as a treasure her book in the Spanish tittle Las Llamas no me Destruyeron. I read it in 1985 and it changed my life forever. Just this past weekend I shared her story in front of 1000 women. I want to know of her life after she made it back home from the hospital!
    Did she write any more after The Flames Could not Destroy me?

    • says

      Danisa, thank you so much for your comment. I will reach out via your email. I would love to share more about mom’s life after the fire. I would also love to hear more of your story. Jeff

  11. says

    Like your mum, you too have the gift of words. Thank you for the wonderful tribute. I read your mother’s book many years ago. It truly influenced the way I will practice Christianity. I still read it from time to time. Your mother could have been my mother too. God bless you and your family!

    • says


      Thank you so much for your kind words. I continue to be struck by the number of people whose lives my mom touched through her words. In this Christmas season your words come to lift our spirits.


  12. chris skinker says

    Very well written remembrance of your mother, Jeff. I was living in Southern California when the fire occurred and remember how profoundly sad I was when Jill called to give me the news. I know those days following the fire had to be devastating for all of you. Mrs. Ton was a very positive force in my somewhat tumultuous childhood in Lebanon.

    Chris Wilson Skinker

  13. says

    What a beautiful tribute! I remember your family from First Baptist Church in Evansville. I always remember your mother being kind and gentle.

    Sonia True Keepes

  14. says

    I’ve been here before. You even wrote back to me. I have realized that there will never be closure to my bond with your mother, she changed my life forever and I don’t care to move on. I was only 15 years old when I read “Las Llamas No Me Destruyeron.” I have purchased countless copies of it in English, and as a therapist, I have given this book to so many as assignments… I hold that Spanish copy I read over 3 decades ago as an heirloom and keep on searching for any other copies anywhere to no luck!
    I love you Jeff, a stranger, only because I know there is a piece of her in you!
    I pray for you often… that you may become every bit of the man God called you to be! Thank you for honoring her in such beautiful way! Danisa

  15. Elsie Owings says

    My mother recently passed away, and as I sorted through her old books, I sat down and read “For the love of my daughter.” The lessons your mother learned were similar to those I had been learning, the only difference being that my religious beliefs are more liberal and Spong-like. I am looking forward to reading her post-fire book. Condolences on your loss, even though it’s been a few years now.

    • says

      I am so sorry for the loss of your mother. Sorting through who they were can be difficult, but we can learn amazing things about who they were.

      Thank you so much for your kind words. Mom would be happy. It will be five years since her passing in a couple weeks. Funny you should say Spong-like…post fire that was mom’s favorite author. Her faith became more along those lines. Would love to hear from you after you read “Flames”

      • Elsie Owings says

        Thanks, Jeff!
        Yes, I will definitely write again after I’ve read “Flames.” I ordered a copy through Amazon and am looking forward to getting started on it. I hope it offers lots of insights into the changes she experienced. One thing I like about her writing is that she was very open to the need for continuing change and growth. That’s my viewpoint, too: no matter how old we get, there is never a point where we are fully grown up. 🙂

  16. Sue Eberwein says

    So well written Jeff. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I of course remember your mom very well as the BF. You characterized her perfectly. Such a beautiful lady inside and out. Loved spending time at their house with Jill. Such great memories. I read her book and was so moved by what all she was accomplishing. Thanks so much for sharing this so others who did not know either Mary Ellen at least have a small appreciation of her.


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