Thomas Cannon, 79, a retired Richmond postal worker who lived much of his life on the edge of poverty so he could give away a portion of his modest income to those in need, died July 2 of colon cancer at Richmond Community Hospital.
The self-described poor man's philanthropist, he gave away more than $150,000 over the past 33 years, mostly in thousand-dollar checks, to people he read about in the Richmond Times-Dispatch who were experiencing hard times or who had been unusually kind or courageous.
Recipients included a Richmond woman who started a youth center in her low-income apartment complex, a retired postal worker who was a faithful volunteer at his neighborhood elementary school, a man and woman who wanted to return to Vietnam to visit their home town, a Richmond crime-victim advocate, a Petersburg teenager who had been abandoned as an infant and recently had been named Boys and Girls Clubs' Youth of the Year for Virginia.
He gave to people of all ages, races, nationalities and incomes, usually by mailing a check to the Times-Dispatch and asking reporters to deliver it. He was never sanctimonious about it, noted one of his occasional delivery people, Times-Dispatch writer Bill Lohmann. " 'Bodacious,' one of his favorite words, would be a better description," Lohmann wrote in a weekend column recollecting Mr. Cannon's life.
Mr. Cannon traced his penchant for benevolence to his time in the Navy. While he was away at signal school, many of his shipmates were killed in a shipboard explosion at the Port of Chicago. He concluded that he had been spared to help others and be a role model, to help people see "the oneness of it all."
In 1995, a group of admirers and recipients of his benevolence set up a trust fund for him and his wife, who had suffered debilitating strokes and required her husband's full-time care. (During her last years, he spent his nights in a sleeping bag on the floor next to her bed.) They also bought the Cannons a house to replace the modest dwelling, which lacked central heating and air conditioning, where they had lived for 30 years.
In 1998, Oprah Winfrey gave him the computer he had long dreamed of owning and inducted him into her "Angel Network." Last year, he published "Poor Man's Philanthropist: The Thomas Cannon Story," with Sandra Waugaman.
Mr. Cannon was born in Richmond, the youngest of four children. His father died when he was 3, and his mother moved the family to Chase City to live with her mother and stepfather in a three-room wooden shack with no electricity or running water. He left school after the seventh grade to help support the family.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, he returned to Richmond and enrolled in the eighth grade. He got his high school equivalency degree and then received an undergraduate degree in fine arts from Hampton University in 1954.
He worked briefly as a school art consultant in Richmond and then joined the U.S. Postal Service in 1957. He made his first donation in 1972, to the Westhampton Junior Woman's Club in Richmond in support of its volunteer work with an urban elementary school.
Mr. Cannon supported his wife and himself, their two sons and his charitable efforts on a salary that never topped $20,000 a year. As one of his sons recalled, "There was nothing special about our home life. He went to work every day, helped us with our football and baseball, made sure we were taken care of."
When he retired from the postal service in 1983, he and his wife lived in virtual poverty on his pension. "We lived simply, so we could give money away," he told the Times-Dispatch this year. "People say, 'How can you afford it?' Well, how can people afford new cars and boats? Instead of those, we deliberately kept our standard of living down below our means. I get money from the same place people get money for those other things."
After Mr. Cannon's cancer was diagnosed, he resolved to teach the Richmond community how to face death without fear. "The world is like a revolving door," he wrote in a Times-Dispatch letter to the editor last month. "People constantly are going out at death and coming in at birth. This is a natural phenomenon. It's been going on since the dawn of creation. It's merely the shifting of being and consciousness from one dimension of existence to another. . . . "
In a Times-Dispatch interview in May, he said, laughing: "A Baptist deacon who owed me $200 died recently. First thing I'm going to do when I get to the other side is run him down."
Mr. Cannon's wife, Princetta Cannon, died in 2000.
Survivors include his sons, Thomas "T.C." Cannon Jr. of Varina, Va., and Calvin M. Cannon of Opelika, Ala., and 11 grandchildren.
Mr. Cannon made it known that he was opposed to a foundation carrying on his philanthropy after his death, since a foundation would require a bureaucracy and reams of paperwork. Nor did he want his name attached to anything. What he wanted in his honor and memory, he told the Times-Dispatch, was simple: "Help somebody."