(About my uncle who passed away earlier this year).
Boy, Uncle Thomas was the world’s greatest uncle!
While growing up in Houston, Texas, I didn’t get to see him except on special occasions. Uncle Thomas was good about visiting our family in Houston, but it’s hard (and expensive!) to keep in touch over such long distances. While I was growing up, my dad told me stories about Thomas and Ginnie and Eileen; it was clear that my dad and Thomas had a deep and caring relationship and had been through a lot together. As someone who grew up as the oldest among 4 kids, I guess I can appreciate the everchanging dynamics of a household with 4 children. To borrow an image from my dad’s imagination, I could imagine all four Nagle siblings on opposite corners of a boxing ring at Madison Square Garden. At the bell, Aunt Ginnie rushes forward to get the first punch but ends up tripping over her feet; Aunt Eileen resolutely stays in her corner to protest the rules; My dad comes out “dancing like a butterfly’ but fakes being knocked out in order to win a bet, and Uncle Thomas tries valiantly to play referee and convince everyone to end the fight until Ginnie swings a wild punch at him and brings him down good. Now that’s an event I’d pay good money to see.
As luck would have it, I ended up visiting New York a lot during the 90s. For the first two times, it was for work-related reasons, but later I took multiple trips overseas and made it a point to stay an extra 2 days or so in NY so I could visit Uncle Thomas and Aunt Eileen.
Uncle Thomas, me on Uncle Bill’s boat on Long Island (Uncle Bill is in the back). 1998
The first trip was in 1993. I had no idea what to expect, but Uncle Thomas met me at the train stop and went out of his way to take me around town. We did the usual touristy stuff — visiting the Cloisters, the Brooklyn Zoo and the Empire State Building and taking the ferry around the island (I’m sure that was not the first time for him!). Thomas also made sure to show me the neighborhood where he and my dad grew up and other important landmarks. We visited St Patrick’s Cathedral (where my dad proposed to my mom, for example). Thomas talked about their youthful summers and Uncle Curley and the practical jokes the kids played on one another. Of course, my dad had told stories with the same cast of characters, but Uncle Thomas had different stories and a memory which seemed inexhaustible.
Surprisingly, I learned from him that my grandfather was an excellent cook. In contrast my dad could hardly cook anything except steak and hamburgers — Uncle Thomas never seemed to cook either; he struck me as the type who would rather invite invite someone over for sandwiches or have seafood at a nearby restaurant. But I was certainly a good cook, and my brother Tommy was an outstanding cook, so this led me to speculate that the Nagle cooking gene must always skip a generation in the males.
Donald Nagle (my dad) and Thomas Nagle, San Antonio, TX, 2005
Both my dad and Uncle Thomas were great at telling stories, but their styles couldn’t have been different. My dad liked to be outrageous and embellish at the edges –anything for a laugh. Uncle Thomas told stories earnestly and almost as if he were under oath. At the same time, Thomas always felt compelled to tell everybody’s backstory, causing some of the stories to go on and on. But I never minded. My dad talked about wacko clients from his law practice, while Thomas talked about crazy things which King Kullen workers were trying to pull behind management’s back. Thomas’s stories were funny too, but there would usually be an insight or lesson at the end.
Like Uncle Thomas I spent a lot of time at supermarkets. Having worked as a supermarket cashier for seven years during school, I regarded supermarkets as familiar territory. Every time Thomas visited Houston, he made sure to visit the same supermarket I worked at — partly for professional reasons, but also just to walk around and talk with people and find out how people did things in Texas. For some reason, I’ve shared this fascination with supermarkets and often thought that you can tell a lot about a society by what goes on inside its supermarkets. When I travel anywhere, I always enjoy visiting the local supermarkets to get a feel for what the people were like. I’m sure Thomas would approve.
Before I started visiting New York, dad and Uncle Thomas once visited me in Baltimore for graduation ceremonies. That was 1989. I was never really into sports, but that year my school (Johns Hopkins) had a phenomenal men’s lacrosse team. I suggested that we go see the finals (which was in College Park, Maryland, about an hour away). Dad and I took one car, while Uncle Thomas tagged along in his rental car. This was in the days before cell phones and GPS; as luck would have it, I took a wrong turn on the freeway, and it took about 45 minutes to recover from that mistake (mainly because we had to make sure that Uncle Thomas was following us when we retraced our steps). As a result, the rest of the ride was hellish. Dad was furious and berated me nonstop for not paying attention to road signs. For dad, being late to a sporting event was like being late to church. But once we arrived at the stadium, I remember Uncle Thomas’ expression; he was actually chuckling at my dad for giving me such a hard time over something so trivial. There is no more welcome sight to a young man being yelled at by his dad than the eyes of a sympathetic uncle.
(By the way, the lacrosse finals were great. My school’s team won, and we all had a great time).
One of the more memorable NY visits came when I returned from Peace Corps in 1997. My country Albania had actually experienced a kind of civil war, and so all the volunteers had to return home in a rush. When Uncle Thomas met me at the airport, I was still in shock. I had lost most of my belongings and barely had more than the clothes on my back. After that misadventure, Uncle Thomas was literally the first recognizable face I saw in the United States. The first thing he did was bring me to a department store to buy me socks and underwear and maybe an extra shirt. “Just go ahead,” he said, “Buy anything you want.” Later he brought me to an Italian restaurant for a sumptuous dinner. It was so surreal. One day I was living in a country threatened by anarchy and civil war; the next I was wearing awesome American underwear and eating delicious fettuccine with my fantastic uncle. At such a moment, I felt on top of the world.
During this and subsequent visits, Uncle Thomas and I did other touristy things. We visited a Dr. Seuss art exhibit, saw a great Broadway musical, did dim sum in Chinatown and visited the TV & Radio museum. All great and fun things. But what insanity! For an out-of-towner it seemed incredibly stressful and expensive. The signs, the traffic, the noise! Perhaps these things might be less likely to bother a native New Yorker, but Uncle Thomas had a knack for going with the flow — refusing to be bothered by $12 an hour parking or waiters who took forever to bring your sodas or traffic lanes which inexplicably closed.
Even though I was born in New York and my spent half his life there, ironically all of my New York memories were spent with Uncle Thomas rather than my dad. Perhaps it would have been better to visit New York with my own dad; my dad would have shown me all his personal landmarks, as well as any important place which had importance in baseball or boxing history. But as we all know, my dad moved to Texas, while Uncle Thomas stayed put. One Nagle brother wanted a change of scenery (and profession), so he moved to a place where Yankees were vilified. Don’t get me wrong, Dad was a proud Yankee — he never touched a jalapeno or went to a rodeo of his own free will. But Uncle Thomas became for me a symbol of a man who was content to stay in one geographic area and soak up its rich history and culture. Uncle Thomas certainly loved to go places — and it’s good he had multiple opportunities to do so over his many years. Certainly having children …. and grandchildren … gave him plenty of excuses. But I always got the sense that Uncle Thomas was perfectly happy retiring in the same place he grew up in, close to his family, surrounded by great sports teams, phenomenal bagels and supermarket chains which almost seemed like home.
Mildred Nagle (grandma) with her two boys Donald and Thomas, 1934-5?
Teresa and Donald Nagle, Bill Farrell and Eileen (Nagle) Farrell, Thomas Nagle, 2005. San Antonio
From the official obituary:
GUILDERLAND – The family of Thomas F. Nagle issued the following information following his passing on January 31, 2014. As a business executive and community leader, Nagle’s work touched the lives of many and his contributions left a positive mark.
Thomas F. Nagle was born in Brooklyn in 1928, raised in Jamaica, Queens and spent most of his life in Hicksville, until he moved to Guilderland in October 2012. He graduated from Fordham University with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1951. Nagle enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1950, was drafted in 1952 and completed his training on Parris Island, distinguishing himself as an Expert Marksman. He served in Nara, Japan during the Korean War. Nagle moved to a Levitt home on Blueberry Lane, Hicksville with his wife and infant daughter in December 1954. Nagle welcomed four more children, two girls and two boys, later becoming a grandfather nine times and a great-grandfather twice. He was a leader in the community. His life ended on January 31 in Guilderland, New York at age 85. He was preceded by his parents Thomas W. E. and Mildred, his brother Donald and sister Virginia. He leaves behind his sister Eileen Farrell (William) and sister-in-law, Terry Nagle, five children:Norine Nagle (Kerry Johnson) Roberta Spinosa (Dan), Ellen Hughes (James), Steve Nagle, Michael Nagle (Diane); nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews and their children.
Nagle had polio as a child and was not expected to live, but in typical fashion, he beat the odds and his slightly weaker leg never slowed him down. He competed on organized football and bowling teams, and was always up for a pick-up game of basketball. Even after he stopped playing sports, he continued as a fan. He would bring his children and grandkids to Mets games, and despite their dismal history, he remained a fan. Watching a game with him at home made you feel like you were at the ballpark cheering the Mets, and learned about his insights on the players.
Nagle worked in supermarkets. He started as a store manager for First National Stores (Finast) in 1956 and worked his way up to Director of Labor Relations in the late 1960s. He eventually left Finast to return to King Kullen Supermarkets, in 1979 as Director of Personnel and Labor Relations. King Kullen was where he had his first job at 16 that had continued through his college years. He retired in 2004 and continued to consult and advise for a few more years.
Nagle remained committed to giving back to his community. He was first elected to the Hicksville School Board in 1968 and served for two decades in various capacities until the mid-1980s. In 1969, he helped found H.A.D. – Help-Aid-Direction, Inc. – a program committed to educating Hicksville residents about drug abuse and helping those with problems. He was an active member of Holy Family Church (Hicksville) where he volunteered as a church usher, lector, and member of the booster club. Within the church, Nagle was involved with the Nocturnal Adoration Society, Legion of Mary, and Holy Name Society. He was also a member of the Holy Family School Board.
A phrase you could always hear him say was, “You meet the same people on your way down that you meet on your way up.” It was truly the phrase which defined his life. He treated others with respect and dignity no matter their walk in life, and looked for ways to quietly help others. He never wanted accolades, and worked to make the lives of others better, a true reflection of the Jesuit values he held. Without a doubt, Nagle’s kindness, generosity, and hard work left a mark on the world. He will be dearly missed by his family, friends, and neighbors.