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Social worker Thomas ‘Wally’ McCann dead at 70

Social worker Tom McCann visiting New York City. | family photo

Tom McCann was part of a tight circle of friends from the University of Notre Dame. Nearly all of them were from the South Side, and all but one shared the same first name.

They became known as “The Toms.”

After graduating, they always tried to get together for a boys’ night at Christmas. Every summer, they planned a lake vacation. For nearly 50 years, The Toms have tailgated at Notre Dame football games. They hoist a flag with their graduation year: “The Great 68.’’

The tailgate flag for “The Toms” from Notre Dame’s Class of ’68. | Supplied photo
The tailgate flag for “The Toms” from Notre Dame’s Class of ’68. | Supplied photo

Tom McCann was the nucleus of the group. A social worker for more than 40 years, he could talk about almost anything — the great tamale place he’d just discovered in Pilsen; Chance the Rapper; the White Sox; jazz; the writing of Roger Ebert, the poetry of Seamus Heaney. He read James Joyce’s “Ulysses” twice. And, he understood it, said his son, Emmett.

“I don’t know anyone else that loved living as much as he did,” his son said.

“He always was excited to go to new movies, or tell you about the new restaurants,” said attorney Bryan Dunigan, the only non-Tom in the Notre Dame group.

“He was such a sponge for constantly staying in touch with pop culture,” said another member of The Toms, Tom “Rock” McKenna, a teacher and coach at St. Ignatius.

At 70, Mr. McCann was still a full-time social worker, helping some of the most disenfranchised people in Chicago, relatives said. Instead of burning him out, the job seemed to stoke his empathy.

According to co-workers, “He could walk into a room with a patient who was surrounded by three doctors, four nurses and six specialists — each arguing for their own specific point of view on treatment — sit down, take the hand of the patient, and listen to what they wanted,” said Emmett McCann. “He could block out all the noise and understand what was best for the individual.” Mr. McCann worked to enable patients to remain in their own homes for as long as possible.

Among classmates, he was “the Tom” people talked with when they felt disheartened.

He died June 20 of a stroke after a swim in Lake Monona in Madison, Wis. Mr. McCann was 70.

He is the first of The Toms to die.

“Maybe we all naively thought we were indestructible, but this has really hit the whole group hard,” said another member of the group, attorney Thomas A. Durkin.

Tom McCann grew up in South Shore. His dad was a ComEd employee. His mom washed hair at an Elizabeth Arden salon. He went to Our Lady of Peace grammar school and Mount Carmel High, where he played football.

At Notre Dame, The Toms started using nicknames. Otherwise, “eight guys turned around,” said Tom Gibbs, an attorney. Tom McCann’s sobriquet was his middle name, Wally.

The classmates entered different professions, but “None of that mattered,” said Tom Weyer, an insurance executive. “We’re like the ‘Band of Brothers.’ ’’

Tom McCann served in Colombia in the Peace Corps and earned a master’s in social work at UIC. He met teacher Kathleen Mary Drumm when they both worked at the juvenile center that used to be called the Audy Home.

“He was cute and very funny,” she said. “I fell for him right away.” In 1972, they married at Notre Dame. They raised their four children in Oak Park.

“He was just there for his kids,” she said. “He went to all of their games, read to them.”

When he died, he was working at HRS, a nursing and therapy agency based in Lombard. “My husband spent most of his time in that agency visiting homes on the West Side,” said his wife. “He helped so many people that were really poor.”

“What kind of guy is still a social worker at age 70? It’s a tough job,” said Tom Weyer. “He tried to take care of as many people as he could.”

“He wasn’t just a social worker by trade,” said Thomas “Cuz” McKenna, onetime executive director of the Indiana Department of Commerce. “He was a social worker by heart.”

“He was my best friend and my moral compass,” said his son. “He really made the world a better place.”

After Mr. McCann’s funeral, friends and family gathered at Fitzgerald’s to celebrate his life. They dubbed it “Wallystock,” sharing poetry, singalongs and performing some of his favorite tunes by Wilco, the Band and Bruce Springsteen.

He is also survived by a daughter, Mona O’Keefe; two more sons, Peter and Conor, and eight grandchildren. Services have been held.

“I don’t fear death as much as I might have, or maybe, not at all,” said Weyer. “We may get reunited and get to catch up.”

A circle of Toms, all friends who attended the University of Notre Dame, here in Long Beach, Ind. in the early 1980s. (L-R) the only “non-Tom,” Bryan Dunigan; Tom Etten; Tom “Cuz” McKenna; Tom McCann; Tom Weyer; Tom Gibbs; Tom Durkin; Tom “Rock” McKenna.
A circle of Toms, all friends who attended the University of Notre Dame, here in Long Beach, Ind. in the early 1980s. (L-R) the only “non-Tom,” Bryan Dunigan; Tom Etten; Tom “Cuz” McKenna; Tom McCann; Tom Weyer; Tom Gibbs; Tom Durkin; Tom “Rock” McKenna. | supplied photo