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Friday, May 20, 2016

In loving memory of Thomas William Gleason 1948-2016 - By Walter Lunt

"We miss you already, Tommy.” (Windham Town Hall staff)
To family and to those who knew and loved Tommy Gleason, he will be remembered as the guy with the big Irish heart and a passion for all things mechanical.

Gleason died of heart failure on May 11 while he and his wife, Nancy, were visiting an aunt in New Jersey. The sudden and tragic event left his family, friends and community in shock.
Hundreds gathered at three separate devotional services last Tuesday to remember and pay final respects to the family man, town councilor, engineer, mechanic, handyman, gardener and all-around good guy who always had time to say hello, lend an ear or help out.

Nancy Gleason said the outpouring of support at the Dolby Funeral Chapel, Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Town Hall auditorium was “Beyond my wildest dreams.” She singled out eulogies delivered by Tommy’s older brother, Tim, and by Windham Town Manager Tony Plant as particularly inspiring. That was Tommy, “…they hit the nail on the head,” commented his younger brother, Todd.
“Everything was done with class and dignity,” said Nancy. But the procession from Town Hall, through Windham, to the church was the most moving and impressionable for her. The hearse, limo and police and fire vehicles departed past a line of town workers holding a sign “We miss already, Tommy,” and proceeded over Windham Center Road, River Road to Newhall, Gray Road to Foster’s Corner, and then Route 302 to the church in North Windham. Town workers stood in solitary beside their freshly shined vehicles at the public works garage, public safety building and fire house. One family member commented on the procession, “He (Tommy) is standing on the roof of that lead fire truck, smiling and waving and loving every minute of this.”

Gleason was born in New York City. He developed a penchant for building and fixing at age 12 when he helped his father rebuild the family home in Queens. He repeated a similar task with his own family years later when he and wife Nancy upgraded a historic farmhouse in Windham.

After high school, Gleason pursued a career in bio-chemistry, attending St. Francis College in Biddeford (now University of New England). 

“He was a whiz in math and science,” according to Nancy. Finding limited opportunities in that field, he returned to New York and found his calling in mechanical engineering. After a few years of operating cranes and other heavy equipment he became director of training for the trade that was his passion. He taught newbies in the classroom and on the job.

By the 90s, Tommy and Nancy were ready to leave the stress and crowded living of New York. Recalling his days in Biddeford and later in Portland attending engineering seminars, Tommy moved with Nancy and their two daughters, Melanie and Kathleen, to Gorham, and later to Windham. Soon after the move, Tommy became interested in local politics while protesting an inventory tax. It was during this time he met Lane Hiltunen. The two became fast friends and political pundits, often attending and speaking out at local municipal meetings. 

“When we showed up at the meetings you’d hear people say, ‘Here come the two troublemakers’,” Hiltunen said. Their banter and opinions soon took to the airwaves on Standish community radio station WJZF – 97.1. For two years The Tommy and Lane Show featured guests and gab and covered all topics from local roads to international relations. It was during one of their once a week, two hour broadcasts that Lane assigned a nickname to his broadcast partner. Station owner and producer, the late David Patterson, had playfully inserted sound effects of explosions and gun fire under Tommy’s more opinionated remarks, earning him the title Tommy Gun.

Soon after the radio show ran its course, Gleason decided to make a run for local political office. His first attempt at a seat on the Windham Town Council ended in defeat, but a second try in 2010 was successful.

“He wanted people to be happy with their government,” according to Hiltunen, “he’d give you the shirt off his back, but he wouldn’t give you somebody else’s shirt.” And people weren’t intimidated by him. “His constituents were not afraid to call him.”

Fellow town councilor David Nadeau found it difficult to discuss his close relationship with Gleason. “How do you explain a friend?” he said. But he did discuss two of Gleason’s more passionate issues: Budgets and rural character.

“He wanted to move Windham forward through planning a smart budgeting. He believed in long range planning, anticipating problems down the road, and setting budgets that would reflect that,” Nadeau explained. He said crisis management was not his style. And Gleason was an ardent supporter of Windham’s 21st Century Downtown plan designed to improve traffic and pedestrian movement and sense of place in North Windham. Wife Nancy affirmed her husband wanted to maintain Windham’s rural character.

Tom Bartell, Windham’s Economic Development Director, remembers serving on the town council when Gleason attended the meetings regularly. 

“You start out thinking this guy’s an adversary,” he remembered, “but then you realize our intentions are similar.” He was speaking from the standpoint of working out the differences. “He respected good government and liked a good debate.”

More recently Gleason was the council appointed member of the Windham Economic Development Corporation, which Bartell now directs. “His common sense and clear thinking was a calming factor. His construction background added perspective” when big projects were under discussion. His attitude was “Let’s not get this one wrong. This is very important. He was a very practical thinker.”
Council chairperson Donna Chapman’s feelings echoed those of others who worked closely with Gleason. “He was an awesome, big-hearted man.” She said even if you didn’t see eye-to-eye with Gleason you knew he respected your views and was always ready to work through problems. 
Chapman helped spearhead the “dignitary funeral” for Gleason. “It’s a fitting way to send him off.”

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Hiltunen reflected on Gleason’s misfortunes. “He been down a lot, but he always gets right back up.” A few years ago, the car he was driving was struck by a drunk driver, leaving Gleason with months of convalescence and the loss of some feeling on his left side. “I would tell him,” said Hiltunen, “I’m not standing close to you if you’re carrying a hammer in your left hand.” Gleason twice suffered from a lung infection and was undergoing dialysis. Worst of all was the death 12 years ago of his younger daughter, Kathleen of a brain tumor at the age of 24.

Asked about their life together, Nancy recalled their first date, which didn’t happen. “He stood me up to go with his friends to a race at National Speedway on Long Island. He called me the next day to ask when we could go out. I told him “How about tonight? Or never.” They did go out. And their next anniversary would have been their 45th.

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