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Tommy Gardiner, dead at 56, was a leader in his family, community and at the CTA

Tommy Gardiner and his wife Kathleen. | Provided photo

He was the oldest and 6-feet-6, so Thomas “Tommy” Gardiner protected his 12 brothers and sisters from bullies when they were young.

As adults, he helped them through their grief after their father died in 2016.

“He’d say, ‘We’ve got to take care of each other and Mama, like Dad would want us to,’ ” said his sister Peggy Heneghan.

Even in a family of 15, the Gardiners missed Tommy when he left to join the Navy. They’d gather for dinner around the extra-long table at their Northwest Side home, where his mother would do a head count. And each night the younger Gardiner kids finished their roll call with: “And Tommy’s in the Navy!”

Tommy Gardiner (center rear) and his 12 siblings and mother and father, Mary and Thomas. | Provided photo

An ironworker and general foreman for the CTA, he worked nonstop when there was an accident, like the 2014 crash of a Blue Line train at O’Hare Airport in which an L car went into an escalator at the end of the line.

“We couldn’t lift it with a crane, so we had to chop it,” said engineer Sam Muharram. “We were working nights and days. We threw so much on Tom, and he always came through.”

Mr. Gardiner, 56, of Park Ridge, died last month after his car spun out on ice as he drove to Galesburg for a Maine South High School basketball game in which his son Tommy was set to play.

Tommy Gardiner and his father, also named Thomas. After his dad died in 2016, Tommy, the eldest of 13 kids, comforted his brothers and sisters, saying, “We’ve got to take care of each other and Mama, like Dad would want us to.” | Provided photo

He loved attending his children’s sports events.

“I would tell him, man, you spend more time with your kids than anybody I know of,” said Muharram. “He would tell me, ‘Sam, it’s important to attach to your kids.’ ”

In the first game after his death, when the Maine South Hawks played against Evanston, the Evanston Wildkits wore warmup shirts to honor Mr. Gardiner: green for his Irish heritage, with the motto “Hawks Fly Together.”

“It was something the players voted to do,” Evanston basketball coach Mike Ellis said. “We wanted to extend our sympathies to their entire family.”

In Mr. Gardiner’s 614-person CTA unit, “There’s 614 broken hearts,” said Colleen Zinck, a co-worker.

He grew up near Belmont and Harlem. His father, also named Thomas, was from the Irish music capital of Lisdoonvarna in County Clare. Mary, his Chicago-born mother, has roots in County Cavan.

His dad signed him and his brother Jimmy up to learn boxing at Portage Park. They boxed everywhere — the front lawn, the front room.

Tommy Gardiner (left) and his brother and boxing partner Jimmy on Jimmy’s wedding day. | Provided photo

After Holy Cross High School, Mr. Gardiner was serving on the USS Saratoga when its fighter jets intercepted an Egyptian airliner to apprehend fleeing Palestine Liberation Organization hijackers. They’d killed Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound Jewish American tourist, on the cruise ship Achille Lauro.

As an ironworker, he toiled at 311 S. Wacker, one of the world’s tallest reinforced-concrete structures. When the Aon Center’s Italian marble “skin” buckled and had to be replaced, “Tommy helped build all the structure to support that work,” said his brother Brendan.

As an ironworker, Tommy Gardiner got a bird’s-eye view of Chicago’s sights. In this photo shot by a coworker and provided by his family, he’s seen in the early 1990s atop what’s now called the Aon Center during a repair job.

He met his future wife Kathleen, a native of Tourmakeady in County Mayo, at Vaughan’s Pub on Milwaukee Avenue. “He just right away knew she was the one,” said Peggy Heneghan.

In his 20 years at the CTA, Mr. Gardiner looked out for his workers, said Frank Kouchoukos, another ironworker and general foreman. “Tommy always did the right thing,” he said.

“He’d say, ‘Make sure you take care of these guys, get ’em in the [shelter] shanty, I don’t want them out in the cold,’ ” said his daughter Ann Marie.

When she got a job in Boston, her father drove 16 hours to help her move. Then, he introduced himself to her neighbors, quizzing them about the neighborhood until he felt comfortable leaving her there.

After his shifts, he looked forward to coming home to a delicious meal cooked by his wife, like her roast chicken, mashed potatoes and Irish soda bread.

Mr. Gardiner enjoyed cooking steak and potatoes on his Weber grill. He loved fishing in Wisconsin, doughnuts from Dinkel’s and Bruce Springsteen’s first album “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” And he liked mowing the lawn in his “jorts’’ — shorts he made from jeans.

At his wake, his kids heard over and over how he talked about them with pride. CTA staffers told them, “Ann Marie, you’re in Boston. Mary Catherine, you’re at DePaul. Tommy, you play varsity basketball. And Michael, you play traveling lacrosse.”

In addition to his wife, four children, mother and siblings Peggy, Brendan and Jimmy, Mr. Gardiner is survived by his sisters Mary Tardella, Noreen Rodriguez, Patricia Lavelle, Erin Bruno, Eileen Kane, Colleen Walsh and Kathleen Gillespie; and brothers John and Michael.

Tommy Gardiner and his family visiting Ireland, the birthplace of his wife Kathleen (left) and his father, also named Tom. | Provided photo