Thom McCarthy – Living History
Thom McCarthy, notwithstanding his recent passing, exemplified what might be considered living history. Thom was an original Trustee of the BPHS who was centrally involved in getting our organization and especially its events off the ground and then giving them a running start. For that, he deserves our acknowledgement. However, his entry into the Breezy Point Historical Society’s Hall of Fame in 2021 was deserved by much more, notably the volunteerism that characterized so much of his life. Our local organizations and their activities create the social sinews of our community, the history of the present as we move together into our future. Thom’s contributions to so many, in time but also in ideas, mark him out as entitled to special recognition.
Thomas Raymond McCarthy was born on December 3, 1947, to John and Veronica (nee Tietjen) McCarthy. Extraversion was not unknown in Thom’s DNA. His mother “Ronnie,” whose passing preceded Thom’s by only a few months, was herself a personality known to many in Breezy. If one pauses in the Medical Center to read the wall plaque honoring the health care professionals who brought it about, Ronnie’s name is recorded there for posterity. Thom’s father was a veteran of the Pacific campaign during the Second World War, then an NYPD Detective, and eventually an Inspector. The family’s ethic of service likely explains why Thom, himself a reservist veteran of the United States Army from 1969 to 1975, always had what his wife, Louise, described as a soft spot for those who served, and for those who were lost or wounded in combat and for their families.
Thom’s gregarious nature might have been a survival necessity in an Irish family of eight children, especially considering that he also was a so-called Irish twin with his brother Bob. With the birth of Rita, the fifth child, the family’s two-bedroom apartment in Stuyvesant Town gave way to a house in Springfield Gardens in 1951. The family history converged with Breezy history in 1956 with the purchase of a summer bungalow at 7 Gotham Walk, the first of a string of McCarthys and Tietjens and their spouses who, someday, would also enter our shared history. After the formation of the Breezy Point Cooperative in 1960 and the greater assurance of our community’s survival, in 1963 the McCarthys made the leap to 103 Beach 220th Street, a winter residence in one of the new, enlarged, houses on what was then Breezy’s sandy perimeter. During this time, Thom attended Archbishop Molloy High School, followed by Manhattan College, then later Baruch College for his MBA degree in 1977, and additional graduate school in New York University during the early 1990s. During his high school and college years Thom worked in various Rockaway concessions, then in construction, including on the construction of the World Trade Center, but his real love, as everyone who ever crossed Thom’s path for more than a few minutes can attest, was in communications. His first career was in the advertising world for two decades following his college graduation in 1969. During that time Thom won several awards conferred by the advertising trade along with being acknowledged by the American Diabetes Association and Samaritan Village for his participation in its anti-drug campaign, early signs of what became his life’s non-career mission of volunteerism. This didn’t foreclose his teaching stint for the decade following 1980 at the School for Visual Arts on a part-time basis, after which he hit his permanent stride as a professor at St. John’s University from 1989 until his retirement a decade ago. At St. John’s he taught business management, advertising and other business courses and also received several awards relating to his teaching skills and for mentoring students. Did Thom’s academic career confine him to the classroom? Of course not. He also maintained a business in Breezy as a real estate broker. In the spare time that he must have found somewhere, he also authored books on career planning and pursuing a career in advertising.
And with this background, we can turn to Thom’s mission to give his best to the Breezy Point community. This is not a short list nor is it strictly sequential since so much of his volunteering was simultaneous. Louise remembers that Thom would enter another, calmer, more relaxing world shedding the day’s worries as he crossed the Marine Parkway Bridge, an imagery that I think many of us can share. But “relaxing” may not be the most apt description of Thom’s time on this side of Jamaica Bay. As with so much of his early career, Thom was a salesman, but what he was selling was the virtue of service, which he accomplished by drawing attention to the service provided by others. He marketed our local organizations and, so often, shirts and hats for their fundraising. When someone passed a booth where Thom was holding forth, they ran the risk of purchasing yet another unneeded cap or T-shirt, but it seemed impossible to resist Thom’s soft sell pitch – it was always soft sell, but always effective. He started Sons and Daughters of America in Breezy with Bob Crowley and maintained a close association with local veteran’s groups. He was an early, and constant, volunteer for the annual Wounded Warriors event, aided other efforts to raise funds for veterans in need and, indeed, for others who were ill and in need, and involved himself in the Coop’s World Trade Center Memorial Committee. His family relates that he was most proud of being instrumental in the renaming of 220th Street and Rockaway Point Boulevard in 2014 for Gerard Dunne, who answered his country’s call to duty in Vietnam and did not return. Thom’s sister, Rita Gibson, was instrumental in starting Breezy’s Sunset Foundation’s Annual Walk to raise funds for cancer victims for which Thom, not then knowing his own fate, always volunteered. He was a member of the Graybeards, a quintessential good neighbor volunteer organization, and the local AOH. He was also active in the Point Breeze Association and on the Coop’s Green Committee and, of course, its Communications Committee. All of these activities and organizations are among the bonds that hold us together as a community, each year’s events writing an ongoing draft of our history, and Thom’s enthusiastic participation is what made him, in his time, an exemplar of Breezy’s living history.
His seminal role in the formation of the Breezy Point Historical Society, of course, was yet another link between Thom’s passions and our community history. Thom joined us before there was a BPHS, in the early days when a few residents convened with the vague idea about doing something to recognize and preserve memories that were fast fading as the community succumbed to the ruthless rule of mortality. He was among the nucleus group that created our historical society, and, more than that, he assumed the increasing responsibilities of helping to run our many programs. He could make the calls that were necessary to secure venues, and he easily and successfully mastered the logistical skills that were necessary for any event’s success. More than that, he really knew our history (as has been the case with many of our Trustees) and had a memory for its occasionally obscure facts. Thom was an historian, and communicator, but also someone who enjoyed a good walkabout. He visited every continent except Antarctica. One of our Trustees recalls with Thom, Louise and his own wife many years ago as Thom described their recent trip climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with such enthusiasm that the Trustee resolved to go, a resolve, though, not shared by his wife. More locally, he was a great walker. This Trustee recalls biking out of the gate a couple of years ago where he saw Thom walking ahead of him. After a few moments of casual conversation, the Trustee alighted, thinking he’d walk a few yards to be polite, but as he walked along, they got engaged in a discussion on local history. Thom was, of course, an epic talker but he knew how to hold a conversation and he always had his facts down solid. Before the Trustee knew it Thom excused himself, saying that he had to turn in “over there.” Looking, the Trustee realized that they were at the Roxbury gate; engrossed in Thom’s discussion, he never realized that he had walked that entire distance. The last time this Trustee saw Thom was at his mother’s wake, never realizing that his own personal history was fast drawing to a close.
We, as an organization and as a community, never had the chance to say a proper goodbye to a person, and a personality, who has been so enmeshed in our community and its social net over so many years. The usual rituals of wake and funeral were disrupted by a crisis of truly historic proportions, the pandemic, which doubtless will fill chapters in our community’s history in years hence. However, while have lost his physical life, this is our opportunity to preserve the memory of Thom McCarthy. With our Hall of Fame award and our dinner this year, we’ll take advantage of that opportunity to say, in Thom’s memory: Mission Accomplished.
You can see a video about Thom McCarthy in our Youtube channel