Marion’s off this week. So I’d like to dedicate this week’s column to my college friend, Susan Cullen, and her soul mate, Thomas Cullen.
Tom Cullen was killed in the September 11th disaster. He was a member of an elite rescue squad in New York City.
Tom always wanted to be a firefighter. I think that’s all he ever wanted to be. I remember our freshman year at Fordham University when we met. There was a rash of fires set in our dorm by a mysterious person whom we could never seem to catch. One night the building was evacuated because of one of these fires. I remember standing in the courtyard and the resident assistant read a roll of names to make sure everyone had gotten out. Not everyone was present. Without hesitation, Tom raced back into the building and furiously began knocking on doors. The fire was quickly put out and we were all out of danger within minutes, but his fearlessness stuck with me all these years. I don’t think I would have had that kind of guts. Another time, I remember him putting a fire out with an extinguisher before it climbed up the walls of Fordham’s oldest building. He was a real take-charge kind of guy.
It bothered him that someone would even set a fire. It seethed within his very being and he really wanted to catch the person who was doing this. He helped to set up that year what we called “Firewatch.” We’d each take turns sitting in the hallway trying to spot who was putting everyone’s lives in jeopardy. “As long as we stay on watch, everyone will at least be safe,” Tom reasoned.
I remember sitting with him one night on one of these watches. He told me that he was a volunteer firefighter and was volunteering with Fordham’s EMS Crew. He wanted to be a firefighter like most of us want air. It was in his soul; his very being was being “a man for others.” He told me that he thought it was important to get a college degree, but it was futile if he didn’t use his “smarts” to help those around him. My roommate, Dave, was one of many who received assistance several times from Tom and his fellow Fordham EMS crew members.
The only thing that mattered more than firefighting to Tom was his family. Many of his fellow firefighters spoke about his commitment to his wife and son.
“Tom always said, “Marrying that girl was the best thing I ever did.”
Sue’s dedication to him as his wife was also evident. The back of his memorial card shows the depth of their love:
“When I was young, I dreamed of finding someone really special. Who would come into my life and love me, wholly and uniquely… Someone who would understand my desires, encourage my efforts, and share my dreams. When I grew older, I found that person: I love you for loving me just the way I dreamed it would be. Love, Sue”
I remember Sue from my Fordham days very well. She was always smiling and happy and just a joy to be around. She always cheered me up, just by showing up. It’s no wonder a guy with a heart of gold like Tom ended up with someone who celebrated life just as much as he did.
While I didn’t know Tom that well, and hadn’t
him since I graduated college, I went to his memorial service. He was, is, and always will be, a hero to me. I know Sue will always be very proud of him.
As someone who’s about to be married, I hope that I can be as devoted a husband and father as Tom was to his family. I hope I have the strength to be “a man for others” and have the courage to face the dangers that may lie ahead of me. I hope I can love just the way he did, the way God intended us to love others.
Tom died serving others. But what I’ll remember is that he died just as he lived. Those final heroic moments of his life remind me of how I want to live each day. Tom lived everyday as if it were his last. He died doing what he loved to do. And he always let his family know how much they meant to him. He died with no regrets because he made sure he never regretted anything he did.
I hope I’m as smart and as blessed as he was. God bless, Tom…. And thank you.