Ground control to Father Tom

Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 12.02.24 PM There have been a number of deaths of prominent people lately, so I was glad to see media give rightful due to a “local boy done good.”  Live on Telecare today, the Diocese of Rockville Centre laid to rest its most beloved priest, Msgr. Thomas Hartman.  “Father Tom” died far too young, at 69 years of age, of Parkinson’s disease.

“Ground control to Father Tom,” to paraphrase rock legend David Bowie, who also died this year at age 69.  “Requiescat in pace.  And thank you.”

I met Father Tom several times.  The first time was when I was interviewing at Hofstra for the chair in Catholic Studies named for him, which I am humbled and honored to hold these past ten years.  Father Tom and I would have lunch with his caretaker, at a restaurant or at his apartment.  I would see him at annual galas in his honor, raising money for Parkinson’s research.  Each time, I thought, “He radiates.”  Each time, I found him one of those rare people who makes you feel you have their full attention and affection each time they talk to you, never looking around for who else is nearby, though the crowded room is calling.  Each time, I thought, “He looks like all of my Irish great-uncles from St. Paul.”

But others knew Father Tom much better than I.  To them I extend my condolences, thoughts and prayers, especially to the Hartman family, and to Rabbi Marc Gellman and his family.  You can read much more about Father Tom by clicking the various links in this post.  People outdid themselves with the remembrances.

Here I offer just a few recollections and observations that are not already reflected in what’s been written elsewhere.

Father Tom was the “straight guy” of his partnership with Rabbi Marc in the “The God Squad,” but he was himself a very funny man.  As his Parkinson’s progressed, his facial muscles slowed, so it could be hard to read his expression.  But this only made more deadpan the lines he would crack.  He would wait for you to catch the joke and watch you start busting up.  Then, slowly, he smiled, delighted to hear you laugh.

He was irreverent, too.  Father Tom is the first person I met who had a collection of pope bobblehead dolls.  John Paul II and Benedict XVI bobbled to us from the top of his TV.  I couldn’t believe it.  But now when I look at my Pope Francis bobblehead, I always think of him.

Father Tom joined Rabbi Marc to create one of the vanguard interfaith and religious media moments of the twentieth century — no wonder Telecare livestreamed his funeral mass, because the duo created that station nearly ex nihilo.  But the real show was always the friendship between “Tommy” and the Rabbi.  You rarely see two US adult white men evince a public and private friendship so loving and so uninhibited.  In contemporary society, it’s almost always romantic or parental love that’s considered the deepest.  But the ancients put friendship on top.  Father Tom and Rabbi Marc remind us to make friends, to tend friendships, to tell friends they are your lifeblood.

Holding the Hartman Chair at Hofstra, I want to avow the good that philanthropy can do.  In era of vast income inequality, it can be easy to forget the nuances, for example that some people use their wealth to sponsor things like art, research, scholarships and other intangibles to which free-market capitalism generally awards little value.  Father Tom drew the minimalist salary of a diocesan priest, but his skill as a fundraiser was boggling, as he reached out to wealthier friends over and over again.  He opened a Long Island food bank to gather resources that would otherwise be thrown away.  He raised money for a hospice for those dying of AIDS, the first ever located on Roman church property.  He hosted the annual gala evenings to launch a new Parkinson’s research foundation.  (It’s now at Stonybrook, with a nice easy “Give Now” button, which the family requests in lieu of flowers.)

As for the Hartman Chair itself, that was a different story.  After Father Tom’s 2003 announcement that he was ill, the Long Island community worked with Hofstra to establish a new faculty position in his honor.  Not one donor, but rather thousands of local fans — Catholics, Jews and everybody else — gave small amounts to make the Hartman Chair a reality.  I know of no other “crowd-funded” chair at any university.

Usually it’s only churches and synagogues — and masjids and gurdwaras and mandirs — that get funded that way.

There could hardly be a better reflection of Father Tom’s effect on so many people, than this popular acclaim that learning about religion needs to go on.  It needs to go on in the classroom, in the media and in the houses of worship.  It needs to go on by means of each other, reaching out to make friends.