Park Rapids native murdered in Afghanistan
The murder of a Park Rapids graduate who left a flourishing dental practice to help people in impoverished countries has been heart wrenching for his family and the small community he attended school in.
"He was just a great person," said a choked up Tim Grams, identical twin brother of Dr. Thomas Grams, 51. "He didn't strike you as that type of person, but he was."
Tom was a gentle soul with a wonderful sense of humor who would come back from medical missions "with fabulous stories," Tim said.
The brothers were 1977 graduates of Park Rapids Area High School.
Tom Grams was part of a 10-member medical team providing health care to northern Afghanistan when the group was massacred last Thursday north of Kabul. Their bullet-riddled bodies were found Friday. The families were notified over the weekend and Tim Grams notified friends via Facebook.
The boys are the sons of Paul and Irene Grams, who still live in Park Rapids. Paul Grams said he could not bring himself to discuss his son's death.
The Taliban has claimed credit for the slayings, maintaining members killed all but one Muslim in the group sponsored by International Assistance Mission. The Taliban said the group was a ministry trying to spread Christianity.
The group was distributing toothbrushes and eyeglasses, not Christian teachings, said Tim Grams.
"Absolutely not," Tim Grams said. "Really the only time he went with IAM was this last trip. He'd never worked with that group before.
"The other groups he worked with were totally non-religious, no religious affiliation whatsoever," Tim Grams said.
"He was well read on his Muslim traditions and laws," his twin said. "He was keenly aware that in most countries it's a capital offense to try to convert a Muslim and that's certainly true in Afghanistan. He did not carry religious articles with him.
"He traveled to these countries, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, to give dental care, to get to know the people, to experience their culture and he respected their culture and their religion."
The Grams family moved to Park Rapids in 1970.
"My dad was the high school principal here," Tim Grams said. "Tom played football and track in high school."
He pursued an undergraduate degree at Duluth and obtained his dental degree in Minneapolis.
Upon graduating, Tim said Tom joined a dental practice in Colorado Springs, then eventually bought a Durango practice and gradually took on new partners. He sold out his partnership in 2007.
But his life's mission took hold in 2000, Tim Grams said.
"There was an Afghani that gave a presentation in Durango and he had been tortured probably by the Russians and the Taliban over the years," Tim Grams recalled. "He emigrated to the United States. After this gentleman talked to the group Tom went to the sponsor and said to send him by his office and he'd fix his teeth for free. It took a number of visits.
"He (Tom) got to know more of this gentleman's Afghani friends. There's a fairly large group of Afghanis in Albuquerque and other parts of the Southwest. Because Tom has lots of friends in Albuquerque he got to know lots of Afghanis and then he got in touch with charity organizations.
"He actually first got started overseas doing dental work in Nepal for the first few trips with Global Dental Relief," a Denver-based relief organization that sent teams of dentists to remote impoverished regions, Tom said.
He loved the work and the trips overseas cleaning teeth and performing extractions. Because of the rudimentary conditions, Tom rarely did more sophisticated procedures such as fillings, Tim said,
During one trip, Tom told his family a local shaman had spread word that dentists weren't to be trusted.
No one came to the clinic. Finally a man with an abscessed tooth, who figured he was dying anyway, had Tom extract the problem molar. The man survived and thrived.
"Business picked up," Tim Grams said, recalling Tom's story,
The men maintained limited ties to Park Rapids. They still have high school friends here but their careers took them elsewhere.
Tim was career military, spending his time in the Alaska Air National Guard, where has is now retired. The third Grams son also lives in Alaska, where the three boys would get together to hike, canoe and revel in the outdoors.
That was the reason Tom Grams was drawn to Durango, Tim said.
"He liked going into remote mountainous regions and that's what he liked to do in his free time," Tim said. "He did a lot of backpacking and hiking."
But that also drew Tom to Afghanistan, where he made several trips to the Pashtun region. He became well-known there and so respected, the locals asked him when he was going to move to the region.
"I've talked with some of the relief organizations and they've got some projects they want to do so in the next few days as I finalize the ideas they have and come up with some ideas I'll certainly send out some sort of announcement of where friends can send charitable donations to continue Tom's legacy," Tim said.
It was a tragedy that such a giving person was taken so mercilessly, Tim said.