Longtime U.S. border agent Tom True died March 21 at the Sitka Pioneer Home, following a long decline due to dementia, and more recently, Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). His wife of 42 years, Shelley Mc Laughlin-True, was with him.

For three decades, True served as an inspector for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, beginning in 1978 in the former custom’s house located at Main Street and Old Haines Highway. In 1979 he moved to the new border station at Dalton’s Cache. He retired from Customs and Border Protection in 2008.

True was a longtime Haines Borough Public Library board member, and a devoted father to sons Nick and Micah. He was deeply introverted, and few outside of the family knew him well, family members said.

Judy Ewald was part of the small customs and INS team who lived near the relatively remote border crossing where they worked. “He was easy to get along with and you could count on him,” she said. On slow days they played word games, and he talked to her about his many interests, including building a round house (it didn’t work out). Once, he attempted to ride a fold-a-boat down the Klehini River. “They made it about 100 yards, but he didn’t mind. He had tried. That was Tom.”

True joined the library board because he loved books and reading, fellow library board member Aleta Adkins said. They rewrote the group’s by-laws together. “Tom kept the details right, and made sure there was no sloppy work.”

Micah True said his father had “quiet humility” and did not draw attention to his achievements that included gifted piano playing and a master’s degree in zoology. His thesis was “The Behavior and Ecology of the Pika.” While working at the border, True collected butterflies for University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Ken Phillips, and after retiring, conducted his own experiments to learn if butterflies are attracted to some colors more than others.

“I grew up to the sound of him playing the piano,” Micah said.

Thomas Jesse True was born in 1949 in Portland, Ore. to Gail and Charles True. His father worked for a phone company and his mother was a homemaker who played violin. True began playing the piano at four, and played on the same piano his entire life. He attended Willamette University as a National Merit Scholar, and earned his master’s degree from Idaho State University in 1974. True’s career with INS began with a summer job in Eastport, Idaho in 1975. Prior to moving to Haines, he worked for the INS in New York.

He met Shelley Mc Laughlin in 1974 when she enrolled in a summer field course in which he was teacher’s assistant. As a practical joke, he asked her to carry a large stick for two miles, saying it was for the professor. They married on May 24, 1975 in her hometown of Rocklin, Calif. His pranks continued throughout their married life. He would steal jigsaw puzzle pieces from her, and “either hide it or swoop in to complete the puzzle,” Micah said. When their sons were four and seven, True convinced them shoveling snow was fun by presenting them kid-sized snow shovels as if they were “the keys to new motorcycles.”

Former resident Josh Hibbard is a public safety commissioner in Los Angeles County. True’s friendly border inspections during his childhood were formative in his involvement with local law enforcement. “He actually seemed happy to speak with you,” Hibbard said. “Rather than ‘the guys with the guns,’ Mr. True helped me see that (border guards) were family people who were part of our community.”

True is survived by wife Shelley Mc Laughlin-True of Juneau; sons Nick of Juneau and Micah of Edmonton, Alberta; granddaughter Alex True of Edmonton; mother Gail Taylor and brother Glenn True of Portland, and two nieces. Brother Scott True and father Charles True preceded him in death.

Tom True especially adored his toddler granddaughter. “He wrote her letters until he was no longer able to write, and spent a lot of time watching a slideshow of her pictures on his TV,” Micah said.

Cards may sent to the Trues c/o Sitka Pioneer Home, 120 Katlian St., Sitka, AK 99835.