Friends & Family

Tom, you’re just 50 – still a kid, by today’s standards. Probably about mid-point. Time to take stock and decide exactly where you want to steer this thing, your life. For decades you’ve served as a benchmark for talent and promise. When I write letters for other young people from whom I expect to see great things, my highest praise is to say that they might be in the same class as the young man (unnamed) whose promise seemed greatest. No one has quite topped you, and the few who have come close have been remarkable. I’m happy for you and Gretchen – you seemed to be natural partners when I met Gretchen over two decades ago.

Warm regards,
Dan Wikler, friend and former professor of Tom’s at the University of Wisconsin

Mary B. Saltonstall Professor
Professor of Ethics and Population Health Department of Global Health and Population
Harvard School of Public Health

18 Responses to Friends & Family

  1. This is a site about Thomas’s (sorry, still can’t think of you as “Tom”) role in education. I think it would be fair to number me among his first students, and I explicitly don’t limit that to the ubiquitous way in which kids learn from their elder siblings. I think Thomas took a far more active role in our education, and I even flatter myself that having to deal with such younger siblings as us may have begun his life’s journey into education.

    One main emphasis of his teaching was in physical education, and the effects of it were felt neighborhood wide. He organized leagues of all the neighborhood kids for many different sports, from football to 500, in which he drew up rosters, taught the finer points of the rules (even giving quizzes on the subject with candy-bar prizes), and refereed games. Each sport even had a championship, and the season would end with a party (food paid for out of his allowance) and the bestowing of individual certificates of achievement (no Microsoft Word templates here–he wrote each one by hand with his calligraphy pen, including all the curlicue borders, and affixed a metal foil seal).

    He had other passions besides sports in which he attempted to inculcate us. He would make up new games that were meant for mental stimulation as much as diversion. Some were simple and required almost nothing (one I recalled just the other day: it involved one player naming a book (here I suppose a stocked bookcase was helpful), the other describing what it was about, and the first player then having to guess if the second had actually read the book. We didn’t play this game very much, because the first time we did, he named “The Chocolate War”; I claimed to have read it, but he disputed this based on my characterization of it. I just checked this book out of the library for my teenage son, and he confirmed the part of the book that I recalled. So, I did read this book, Thomas, just not very well).

    Other games were far more elaborate, and involved boards and game pieces all carefully drawn on, and cut out of, poster board. One was a bird migration game, where each player sought to get his flock safely south for the winter, past the predators, hunters, and geographical hazards. The game with the greatest success (in terms of how often we played it) was an African safari game, with all the rules of movements of the animals (from lions, cheetahs and hyenas on the predator side, to antelope and wildebeest on the prey side) developed after careful research and study.

    As any teacher will tell you, there is a gap (sometimes yawning Grand Canyon wide) between what the teacher teaches, and what the student learns. And even the best student will at times observe rather than emulate the teacher. So, what did I learn from my brother, in the observational sense? I learned the importance of focus, a quality becoming ever scarcer in our blackberry-iPhone-facebook world. Thomas brought that focus to everything he did, and it still manifests itself in his personal dealings. I’m sure everyone reading this can attest to being the object and beneficiary of that focus when spending time with him, and to the difficulty in getting him to answer the phone (when that focus is on someone or something else).

    I also learned about the importance of passion. Thomas commits himself fully to the projects he undertakes, without reserve. His passion was felt by the kids learning how to play football as much as by siblings arguing whether disabled golfers should be allowed to use carts on the PGA tour. I’m certain his students in Cameroon noticed it, and responded to it, studying harder and learning far more than the kids with more average teachers.

    But the most important thing I learned was perseverance, a quality which is essential to any successful endeavor. Some may gently mock its extreme manifestation (Thomas once drove to six record stores looking for a particular Paul Simon disc), but the iron of his persistence is evident in everything–his drawings (once, when drawing together, i quickly sketched a bird; he compared my poor drawing to his excellent one and said the difference between them was time), his birding (a passion which requires one to stand motionless for long stretches), and his work (two words: Pet Town).

    Looking back, I was fortunate to be his student for such a long time. His more official students only had him for a few years. Here’s looking forward to another half century.

  2. Grady Watts says:

    Dear Tom, Hard to take a 50th too seriously in the year I celebrated my 70th and Gerry’s 60th, but milestones are milestones, as opposed to millstones, and I salute you for all the years of inspiring work for State of the Art, Inc and elsewhere. I miss our phone calls and the nascent text messages—what were they called then??? I especially miss your reports on Noah’s development from birth to age 4 or 5. It seems so long ago. Please send an update and let’s keep in touch. atb, Grady & Gerry

  3. George Fitz-Hugh says:

    Happy belated birthday. When I think of Tom I remember horticulture and Camp Pasquaney. The only place I had a formal education to horticulture. It’s the last time the Orioles and Brewers were both relevant and even relevant at the same time. Good memories, Thanks!

    George Fitz-Hugh

  4. Michele Hermes says:


    Happy Birthday! You are a very sensitive, thoughtful and intelligent individual. I loved reading your website and all the wonderful comments about you. I have enjoyed all the times you have spent with our family. You’re very calm like the ocean. The letter you wrote to our family after my mother’s funeral was so heartfelt and beautiful. I still have it and think it’s one of the most beautiful things I have read. You have a very nice family. Noah is so sweet and cute and bright. Cheers to a long life and many great years to come. You’re life has just begun. I’m really looking forward to Thanksgiving!


  5. Erik Thomson says:

    Of course – Happy Birthday!

  6. Erik Thomson says:

    I have a particularly vivid memory of searching for a saw whet owl at the Morton arboretum, in a group with cellphones in hand, failing to find the owl but finding other people with cellphones in hand. We were rarely so unsuccessful, though, with your uncanny ability to identify warblers at a fleeting glance or half a call at 200 meters. I miss those birding expeditions, and the talks on the way there and back. I miss–mostly–coaching the blue dragons. What can I say? We have the birds to tempt people to visit us here in Manitoba; hope you find a way out here soon!

  7. Martha McClintock says:

    I, of course, first got to know you as a calm steady supportive presence in Gretchen’s life. It has only been with time that I have discovered that we share many other treasures–birding, adventure both physical and professional and a passion for teaching. Moreover, as I read your website, I see how much you and Gretchen dovetail in numerous ways, and know that you must take exquisite delight in Noah’s following along your path, before he goes off on his own.

    Your other birthday tributes have been to your successes and brilliance in multiple domains. And, indeed your life makes such a wonderful coherent linear story, looking back through 50 years. But a varied life rarely looks so linear facing forward. What I have appreciated most is your deep understanding of failures and loss and thriving nonetheless, and a quality my Finnish friends call “sisu”. At critical hard times, you have helped me through–both indirectly and directly–, as I am sure you have also helped family and other friends as well. Thank you! May the next 50 years be downhill after an uphill climb–skiing down the mountain, flying, exhilarated, and turning as you will.

  8. John T Hermes says:

    What a joy to read of your many achievments.You have accomplished so much.
    All of your family is so proud of you.I have known you for almost half of your life
    and I’ve never heard anything but positve comments about you.You are not only loved and admired by family and friends but many associates and peers as well.
    I hope you remain healthy, happy and of good humor for many more years.
    John T

  9. Gay Lynch says:

    Dear Tom,
    I think of you and Gretchen and Noah often. I miss you all. In the top drawer of my desk here in California I have our table place cards from your Harvard wedding! 16 years of “mutual love and honorable toil.” I will always remember the beauty of your wedding. This is engraved in my heart. John and I feel honored to have been seated with you and your bride. Your Gretchen will always be my closest friend from Harvard Master’s days. I am grateful for your love for one another. Congratulations on your beautiful family. The warmest of birthday greetings to you and much love,
    Gay Lynch

  10. Christine Hermes says:

    Dear Tom,
    What a delight to read this website! It has been a glimps into your life, and what an amazing life you are living! I so enjoyed your company and the bird walk you took our family on when you all were here last year. I think of you and your birding knowledge when I take walks around Narnia. I, too, have always loved birds! I admire the gentle, intelligent, creative man that you are! Happy 50th!

  11. Sharon Dalton Bugler says:

    I want to wish you all the best on your fiftieth birthday. I knew the first time I met you what a kind, compassionate and generous man you are. I love that you love Gretchen and Noah so deeply and completely, and they, in turn, love you so. I admire your partnership with the world at large and with your family, students, and colleagues specifically. You are a good man, and I salute you!
    Happy Birthday!
    Sharon Dalton Bugler

  12. Divine E. Koge says:

    Dear Tom,
    You taught me Biology and Human Biology in GSS Nyasoso from 1983-1985. Although I was an arts student, I loved Biology so much because of the manner you taught the subject and set your questions during tests or examinations.To pass your test or examination required thinking and reflection rather than the regurgitatation of notes copied in class. The foundation you gave me (us) in Biology in GSS Nyasoso during those years has been treasured by me (us) always because it made me a very good student in Biogeography in High School (CCAST Bambili,1985-1987).
    Another aspect about your teaching that I admired so much was the manner in which you always attended to the academic needs of your students including motivational techniques employed by you to reward top grade students. I can still remember vividly how you would invite those of us with high grades in Biology to your house for a party (soft drinks and porp corn) were also provided and we would dance to the tune of Thriller by Micheal Jackson. On many occasions, you bought excercise books for those students who complained that they did not have them to take down your notes.
    I have not forgotten your generosity/kindness towards some of my classmates (Kerenge Elias Besong Mbi and Tayo Judith) whom you took under your wings for a number of years.
    In the social and sports arenas, we always met and had a great time. During “socials” in the school chapel, you will be there with us or in one of the many football pitches in the compound, we shall be throwing frisbee together.
    The night before we wrote Biology paper II in 1985, you made rounds to the dormitory to inquire how we were preparing for the paper in the morning, you answered some last minute questions we had and asked us to have enough sleep prior to the examination in the morning. I was indeed touched by this gesture of yours. No wonder many Biology students scored grade A at the GCE Ordinary Level in 1985.
    Let me use this opportunity to thank you for being a great teacher and friend.
    Divine Koge
    LL.M Human Rights Law (University of Utrecht, Holland)
    UNHCR Djibouti.

  13. Eric Ginsburg says:

    Happy 50th Tom!

    Your birding experience is still missed in Chicago, although you left behind many teachings and memories, including how to make the call of an Eastern Screech-Owl, the sighting of a Sutton’s Warbler, and more importantly, why someone should go looking for a Sutton’s Warbler, even if others wouldn’t count it. Thanks again, from me and Tobias.

  14. Gilbert Hermes says:

    I look at this website and what has been packed into 50 years. Oh my gosh, Tom. And I have to say, marriage is a great thing. Of course, for you, Gretchen and Noah. But also, to have you as brother-in-law and uncle to my children who just adore you. I remember meeting you during the Smithsonian Project as you and Gretchen were getting acquainted. Through life’s many peaks and occasional valleys you have retained the same humor and creative drive which is so enjoyable. Well, marriage unites couples, and also families. From the get go, you have always enriched the lives of everyone in my family. I deeply admire your many accomplishments and I especially treasure the many simple pleasures you have brought to our lives. Origami will forever be associated with you. Recently, we have spent a good amount of time being virtual wolves. And all five of my children and I have Vampire Weekend on our playlists. Ok Tom, we are ready for the next household craze and a new play list! Happy Birthday!

    Your Bro’, Gilbert Hermes

  15. Elise Hermes says:

    You have this singular and gracious ability to give people back to themselves. You have always given me the sense that you are delighted to be in my company- even when I was a rambling pre-teen and my company probably wasn’t truly enthralling. Amidst the chaos and pain of Annette’s funeral, you wrote that letter that gave us ALL back to ourselves by reminding us of what was good and beautiful about our wily tribe. Do you know what a gift this is to the world at large? It is something I strive for every single day of my life. I think, “Elise, if you have this down by the time you’re 50, then you’ve really got something.” Between you and Gretchen (who also possesses this astonishing quality), Noah hit the lottery. If your parents love you and delight in your company and invest their interest in what’s important to you, what else do you need? Well, if you’re 50, you might need some good cake. And (maybe) some reading glasses so you don’t miss one detail of the great things awaiting you.

    All the best and all my love,

  16. Sheila Siragusa says:

    Tom, when I look at you I see such kindness and still reflection of the world around you. The time we have spent is rich and filled with listening. I’ve been quite blessed to have you as a new family member and look forward to sharing many years of love.

  17. Tilli Friedrich says:

    It seems just yesterday that I held that beautiful baby in my arms and glowed. I have never been so proud of anything I did as give birth to you, and you have exceeded expectations. You are a complicated person, brighter than anyone I know, gentle, passionate and endlessly curious. And now it has been 50 years – years of accomplishment (although you deny it) of intense friendships and complex ideas. I have learned so much from you and through you that being your mother has made a different person of me, and I suspect of others as well. It’s a mother’s right to kwell over her children, and with you I enjoy it, and reflect in your glory. I wish you all the best as you start the second half of your life “for which the first was made” and to the extent that I can take any credit for it (not much) I do so gratefully.

  18. elliott sober says:

    Tom, when I did that independent study course with you on philosophy of biology all those years ago, you were the most intellectually fearless and alive undergrad whom I had ever taught. Nothing has changed since then! I regret our being out of touch with each other, but I continue to remember our time together as one of the high points in my teaching career.

Leave a Reply