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Small town values, big time dreams

Published February 22. 2014 09:00AM

My best friend since grade school passed away.

Tom Shea and I hadn't seen much of each other in a long time. But we'd been friends for 53 years.

We met at North Ward Elementary. We were part of the boomer generation. Class sizes were so large that our small town school district had no place to put some of us.

Because of that fact, Tom and I, and others, experienced a patchwork of educational obstacles. Within five years, we were bounced around to five different buildings and environments, some with no space for us.

We lived in Tamaqua, but for sixth grade, Tom and I rode a bus six miles to a building in Tuscarora, taking along a packed lunch. In seventh, we were back in town, walking to what was left of an 1896 Victorian high school. We'd break for lunch, rush home, and then return 45 minutes later for an elective Latin class taught by Kermit Gregory.

In eighth grade, the school district shipped us to a 1927 former high school. But there wasn't enough space. Tom and I, along with several others, were shoved into a windowless boiler room far below the school stage. That dark cellar became our homeroom. We shared the space with a janitor who tended the furnace.

We had no desks. Instead, we stored our precious schoolbooks atop massive, old heating pipes wrapped in asbestos. Can you imagine that scenario taking place today? At the time, Tom and I simply laughed and adjusted.

For ninth grade we were sent to yet a different school. But this one was brand new and had space for us, plus a planetarium and swimming pool.

Tom became a championship breaststroker on the school swim team. But his real strength was intelligence.

He had a mind that absorbed the extraordinary. He could analyze something to perfection and yet be obtuse. His sense of humor was off the wall. For fun, we'd challenge each other to look at things in non-traditional ways.

One year we both won awards in the school science fair and advanced to regionals. The Allentown Morning Call took a news photo of the two of us posing with an anatomical skeleton. In the picture, Tom looked studious. But I wore round, John Lennon-type eyeglasses and looked like a nerd from the Big Bang Theory. In truth, the one with the best smile was the skeleton.

Tom was a talented artist. During senior year, he and I vied for the honor of top art student. Friendly competition. He won.

We left high school and went to Penn State together to pursue educational psychology.

But our paths split. I accepted a career offer to join the public relations division of Hess's of Allentown, 9th and Hamilton.

Tom, on the other hand, embraced academia and made it his life. He recruited for Penn State and then colleges in New York, New Jersey, Florida and Maryland. He later moved to Germany and specialized in international recruiting.

It's impossible to guess how many young lives he influenced. He also led by example, living true to the free spirit he was. He dared to dream of Utopia, not only in America, but worldwide.

Tom recognized failings in human history and man's propensity to err. He became a freethinker, a leader and activist in the fight for human rights. I was proud to support him in that platform. Nobody did that stuff better than Tom Shea.

He returned to the U.S. and settled in Florida. Ultimately, he moved back to Tamaqua late last year when his health failed. He was cared for by beloved sisters Terri, Lori and families. He didn't want visitors because he felt he wasn't strong enough to properly greet them.

In his final online message to friends and former classmates, he said:

"Thanks everyone for the cards, letters, and messages. They really make a difference when you are stuck in the hospital for an extended period of time. Tomorrow I begin chemotherapy again! Spirits are strong but my body is weak."

Tom passed away Feb. 9. I never had a chance to say goodbye because there was a tragedy in my family at the same time.

As always, Tom was correct. The body is weak. That's true for all of us, a signature of the human condition. The body is perishable and wears out sooner or later.

But our bodies don't define us, and life isn't measured in years. In its purest, most meaningful sense, life's worth is measured by what we accomplish, in our unmitigated courage to challenge the unjust, and in the unconditional love we give away. Tom did all of that and more.

We miss you, Tom. We always will.

You left us far too soon. And you outlived every one of us.

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