In mid June over 1700 people gathered at the Huntington Town House to honor and celebrate a man who has contributed much to the life and integrity of Long Island. Msgr. Thomas Hartman is the founding director of Telicare, the Diocese of Rockville Centre's cable network. He is a frequent guest on "Imus in the Morning" and is the Christian partner of the popular syndicated show "The God Squad" with Rabbi Marc Gellman.
Fr. Tom has written books, HBO scripts for cable and also writes a nationally syndicated column that appears weekly in Newsday. He is probably among the best-known Catholic clergy in the metropolitan area.
However, what sets Msgr. Hartman apart is not his celebrity status, but rather his compassion, integrity and dignity as a person. Not only is he a voice for the religious community of Long Island, but he is also a compelling voice for the voiceless as is indicated by the programming of the television network he directs.
In this time of great hypocrisy and double standards, Fr. Tom practices what he preaches. He doesn't merely "talk the talk," but he "walks the walk." For almost thirty years this parish priest has been touching people's lives from every walk of life. No need is too insignificant or too great. He has spent his life for God by reaching out to people in need everywhere.
A few months ago, after struggling with the diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, Fr. Tom shared his struggle with the world in his weekly syndicated column. Needless to say, the outpouring of support and gratitude for this servant of God's people was mind-boggling. Sometimes you spend your life serving others and never pause long enough to know if your efforts ever made a difference.
People from around the country wrote and shared how he had touched them, from the streets of Manhattan to the cornfields of Kansas, people expressed their love, affection and respect for this simple man of faith who was now embarking on the most challenging road of his life.
When Fr. Tom was first diagnosed with Parkinson's, he indicated that he became very depressed. After thinking about it and praying, he felt God saying to him not to worry, not to be afraid. He began to feel like things would be okay. He then started to think beyond himself, which has been Fr. Tom's style since he was a teenager. He started to think that maybe God wanted him to use his suffering not as a burden, but rather as an opportunity to continue to reach out and help others. He said, "Maybe I need to do more than give sermons about suffering, maybe I need to look at the positive nature of it."
Msgr. Hartman has always been a doer. That is evidenced in his writing, his television programs and in the establishment of Christa House: the Jerry Hartman Residence, a home for those living with the end stages of AIDS and for the dying poor. Fr. Tom's brother, Jerry, a successful film producer, died of AIDS. Christa House was established in his memory with Fr. Tom as one of the driving forces and its' chief fund raiser.
So, now faced with his own debilitating disease, he would have been justified in withdrawing or retiring from his active public life. Instead he decided that he needed to use his struggle as an opportunity to help others possibly suffer less as they come behind him.
Thus, the Thomas Hartman Foundation for Parkinson's Research, Inc. was born. Its sole purpose is to raise money for a cure. The top researchers in the field told Fr. Tom that if enough money is raised, a cure could be found for Parkinson's and many other degenerative neurological diseases.
More than a million Americans suffer from Parkinson's disease. This year alone 50,000 new cases will be diagnosed. There are no known ways to prevent this disease or to anticipate who will get it. Everyone is susceptible.
Fr. Tom's foundation seeks to provide grants for the newest and most innovative scientific projects that offer the best hope for the advancement and development of a cure.
When the cry for help went out, some of Long Island's most successful business leaders stepped up to be a part of his foundation board and to serve on the first annual "Cure for Sure" dinner committee.
Initially, the dinner organizers hoped for seven or eight hundred people to support their first effort. A week before the dinner, over 1200 tickets were sold. They had to stop selling tickets at 1700 because there was "no more room at the inn."
It was an amazing night. People from every walk of life, every career path, every religion and every socio-economic strata came out to support "Fr. Tom," their friend who now really needed their help.
The Huntington Town House was on fire. People were bursting with positive energy and generous hearts. The organizers hoped to raise a million and a half dollars that night. They raised more than double that thanks to the many hands and hearts that came out in record numbers to show their support and affection for a religious man who has made a difference in their lives.
That Tuesday night in June was more than a successful fundraiser for a very worthy cause. It was a celebration of the best that we have to offer when someone who is loved, admired and respected is burdened with one of life's great challenges.
How refreshing, if even only for a few hours, to be among so much kindness, compassion and concern for others, especially when there is so much pain, hate and bigotry afoot.
Even with his suffering, Fr. Tom is continuing to give so much of himself, which draws so much goodness out of us all. We are fortunate to have his voice among us to remind us how to live.