Blount County man’s story of near suicide offers hope to others facing crisis

By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist

Growing up in Blount County, Tommy Skillman never would have guessed he’d be a millionaire one day.

And once he was a millionaire he never would have guessed that one day he’d be pacing the floor with a handgun in one hand, a photo of his family in the other, on the brink of taking his own life.

“But it happened to me,” he said. “And it could happen to you.”

God got a hold of him

It was God who got a hold of him first as he grew up and was baptized at Harmony Missionary Baptist Church, Oneonta, in Blount Baptist Association. It was Peggy Gail Jenkins who got a hold of him next — they met and Skillman knew he had found his wife.

But it was money that controlled him after that and he didn’t see it coming. It was a slow fade over decades. He had worked for the railroad for years and as the railroad company began consolidating jobs Skillman got nervous. As they laid people off and everything was said and done, at 25 years of service, he was the shortest-tenured person left.

“God took care of us,” he said. “I had one of the highest-paying jobs that was left and we were doing fine.”

But his anxiety for the future got the best of him. He bought some chicken houses from his neighbor just in case he needed a backup plan. 

His business grew and five years later he went to buy his first tractor and hay baler. As he applied for credit the salesman told him with everything he had listed as his assets he was a millionaire.

And over time as Skillman leaned into his money, he put God on the backburner. 

He went to church less and less and hung out at the lake more and more. And a little later when he went back to buy another tractor, the salesman told him he was now worth $3.5 million.

“It went to my head,” Skillman said.

But it wasn’t long before his empire began to crumble. In 2007 he experienced a bad tractor wreck and he found himself battling depression and hooked on pain pills.

He received a settlement from the insurance company for his wreck and he spent the money on one of his hobbies.

“I went on a buying spree and bought nine antique vehicles,” Skillman said. “My wife said, ‘Tommy, what are you doing to us? You’re going to bankrupt us.’”

Some months later he went back to the bank to get a loan to make improvements to the chicken houses and the bank wouldn’t let him have it.

“I told them, ‘If I can’t get chickens I’m going to have to close the doors and you’re going to wind up with the farm back,’” Skillman said.

That’s exactly what happened. The bank took the farm and he and his wife ended up back at his old home place in Blount County. In 1975 it was fully paid for but now he owed a $1,000 mortgage payment to the bank each month.

That’s when he was walking the floor, holding the gun and the picture. But God “slapped me on the back and I hit the floor,” he said. “I put the gun on the shelf and gave it to my wife the next morning and told her to put it up.”

She broke down when she realized her husband’s condition, Skillman said. 

But they began struggling along together and turned to God to help them find a way out.

“We’re pulling ourselves out of it,” Skillman said. “God’s blessed us, He’s watched over us.”

‘Tell your story’

Now Skillman has a Fishing for Jesus ministry and he’ll take anyone fishing who wants to go, he said. It’s free — but he’ll share Jesus with you. 

“I just thank God that He was there the night I had the .38 in my hand,” said Skillman, now a member of Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist Church, West End. “I feel like God wants me to help somebody, and maybe I have. Maybe this will — maybe it’d help you to tell your story.”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or text HOME to 741741. Veterans can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255.