By Garrett Cote
Dr. Tom Waddell was the epitome of the college experience. He was a sublimely bright-minded man who partook in three sports during his time at Springfield College, fought tirelessly in several difficult topics of social justice and simply vouched to make his community a better place in any circumstance.
The sixth annual Springfield College Sports and Social Justice Symposium was held on April 9 in the all too familiar Zoom land, and was dedicated to Dr. Waddell who passed away in July of 1987. The keynote speaker and highlight of the event was Jessica Waddell-Lewinstein Kopp, daughter of Tom, who spoke about her father’s legacy and articulated several touching stories to the audience.
After a brief introduction of the event by the Vice President of Inclusion and Community Engagement at Springfield College, Calvin Hill, Martin Dobrow took over and introduced Waddell.
Waddell was an unbelievable talent in each of the three sports he played – football, gymnastics, and track and field. Additionally, the 1959 Alden Street graduate contributed to molding the Springfield College community into a more sheltered and welcoming community to each and every person who stepped foot on campus. Dobrow, author, journalist and professor of Communications and Sports Journalism at Springfield, spoke on the countless amount of courageous actions that Waddell took part in throughout his life.
“Tom was possibly the greatest athlete at Springfield College,” Dobrow offered. “He’s most known athletically for participating in the 1968 Olympics in the decathlon, where he took sixth in the world. But the sports story is just a tiny piece of the Tom Waddell puzzle. He was a U.S. Army paratrooper, a doctor specializing in infectious diseases, and he was an absolute lion for social justice.”
And what a lion he was. Waddell never shied away from making the right decision, no matter how many social norms he had to break during his time.
“He went down to Selma in 1965 with Dr. King, he was an outspoken supporter in 1968 for his teammates John Carlos and Tommy Smith, and in 1976 shocked his classmates by coming out as gay in the pages of a national magazine. In 1982, he started something that was first called the Gay Olympics, a festival of sports and the arts open to all, now known as the Gay Games,” continued Dobrow.
Following the Tom Waddell introduction, a brief video documenting the story of him and his intense battle with AIDS was then presented.
Dr. Waddell seemed to be a sort of video game hero, as Dobrow would add on. This title fits him, appropriately so, considering Jessica has worked in the communications and video game industry for 15 years. She now works for a company where she oversees advertising, public relations, licensing, marketing, social community and creative content.
A 30-minute conversation between her and Dobrow took place succeeding the video, with topics ranging from her childhood memories to past stories about her father that were all extremely compelling.
Dobrow dug into the 1968 Olympics story a bit more, asking Jessica how it made her feel looking back at such a brave act of unity in a time where unity was far from being accomplished.
“It’s an early example of how much he believed in people as people, and that everybody deserves the same amount of rights and respect,” she said of her father.
“He wanted to see people achieve that and he supported the people fighting for it. He had very polarizing views from people across the nation on what they supported and what they didn’t. That moment in the Olympics in 1968 when he supported those two sprinters in holding up their hands with black gloves, and showing their solidarity and showing that they were fighting against racism in the world, was such a big moment.”
Sports do so much for the world, and this instance proves just that.
“Athletes and sports can help overcome prejudices, and if not, can evoke change and at least inspire people to change. That was a huge moment not only for him and those athletes, but the world as a whole. The government had done more injustices and disservices to them than they could have ever done to the government,” Waddell declared.
The action that Waddell took part in that day in 1968 was one of the many valiant and fearless acts that defined who he was.
Another monumental moment that fits the description of acts that defined who he was happened in 1976, when Waddell came out as gay. By no means is the journey of coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community easy – as there are still issues and risks prominent today in many parts of the world – let alone doing it during a time where homosexuality was classified as a psychiatric illness, as Waddell did.
“It had to be scary, intimidating, and I’m sure he questioned it a lot,” started Waddell of her dad’s decision to go public with his sexuality. “He was only the second athlete at the time to publicly come out as gay, and his main thing was that he wanted to show that there are a lot of stereotypes about what homosexuals look like, how they [act, talk, and dress]. He wanted to show that there is more to it, there is more to their community than what people had associated with that group, and that they are just people.”
With all odds against him, with his back against the wall, Waddell stayed true to himself, true to who he was as a human being, and made decisions that were best for him, not what complied with social norms. He took this opportunity to educate and inspire others, letting them know that they are not alone, and they will always be accepted by the LGBTQ+ family.
As Dobrow mentioned in the introduction, Waddell went on to found the Gay Olympics in 1982, which have now been renamed the Gay Games, and still go on to this day.
Although Jessica Waddell only spent three short years with her father before his passing in 1987, he left several pieces of his life behind for Jessica to cherish for the rest of her time, as well as generations of family to come. Whether it be three-year-old Jessica insisting that Tom buy a pink car, reading the book that was published in 1996 about Tom’s life, or the cassette tapes that consisted of Tom speaking directly to Jessica, there are plenty of memories for Jessica to reflect upon.
In closing, Assistant Athletic Director at Springfield College, Michelle Lee Scecina, awarded both the 2020 and 2021 winners of the Tom Waddell Leveling the Playing Field Award. Both winners were deeply involved in many contributions to the Springfield College community, with each of them being a staple, exactly like Dr. Waddell, in what the true college experience looks like. The 2020 award winner was Christopher Tringali, and taking home this year’s award is Kris Rhim.
It is because of people like Dr. Tom Waddell who paved the way and allowed for generations upon generations to partake in the difficult, burdensome, yet much needed work of fighting for social justice. He was a gifted raw athlete, a man with a beautiful soul, but more importantly an incredible social justice activist who will forever be remembered at Springfield College. He truly embodied the Springfield College mission of educating himself as a whole in spirit, mind, and body through leadership in service to others.