RACINE COUNTY — A man was hit by a semi truck, and it was Medical Examiner Tom Terry’s job to, in his words, literally “pick up the pieces.”
Terry described tracking down enough of that crash victim’s remains to “put his face back together,” and identify the man based off his driver’s license photo.
It’s one of many moments Terry recalls with pride from his long career in a field that would turn many people’s stomachs.
At 68, Terry retired as Racine County’s medical examiner Friday after 21 years.
“I’ve dealt with house fires ... plane crashes. Pretty much go home and go to sleep,” he said, adding, “Not that I’m cold-blooded.”
Part of it comes from a childhood spent hunting, trapping and preparing fish and game. Part of it is decades spent riding on the Burlington area rescue squad, first accompanying his father and then as a volunteer himself.
“I couldn’t tell you the number of people who’ve died holding my hand, as opposed to me walking up after they’re dead,” Terry said of his time on the squad.
But there’s also at least some part that’s innate attraction.
In high school, Terry was invited to view his first embalming on an autopsy case where, per his description, “everything was out in the breeze.”
At 17, he said the gory process “didn’t bother me, kind of fascinated me.”
Following graduation, Terry studied to become a funeral home director, but left that industry (it didn’t pay well, he said) and took up with his father’s refrigeration company.
Years later, a bad experience with a local coroner led him back to working with the deceased.
According to Terry, the coroner arrived drunk at the scene of a car crash that killed a young girl whose family Terry knew.
“Not in the best shape to walk, stand or chew bubble gum,” Terry said, the coroner pronounced the girl dead and went to notify the family. Terry went along.
Terry said the coroner didn’t ask to come in, just bluntly told the parents, “Your daughter was just killed.”
“My heart dropped because I knew that’s not how I would want to get notified,” Terry recalled.
It motivated him to volunteer to assist another coroner later. Under him, Terry served as a deputy and was eventually appointed medical examiner himself.
Today, Terry said he and his staff prioritize dealing compassionately with victims’ families, regardless of race, religion or anything else.
He went out of his way to make the bodies presentable for the family, Terry said, stitching up lacerations and using Krazy Glue to paste faces together before a viewing.
He carried a copy of the St. Joseph Daily Missal bookmarked for prayers for the dead along with his medical kit, Terry said.
But personally, Terry was pragmatic about his business, quoting an old funeral director’s adage: “If you’re born to hang, you’re not going to drown.”
Paraphrasing, Terry summed up, ”You’re predestined, and that’s kind of how it’s going to be, you know?”