Tom Waddell was a man of many roles: Student. Teammate. Doctor. Parent. Friend.
But that only scratches the surface of his remarkable story. He was also an Olympian. Outspoken veteran. Civil rights activist. Founder of an international sporting event. Openly gay man.
This list of experiences gives just a small sense of the many lives Waddell lived throughout his own, all of which culminate in yet another title that many in the Springfield College community and around the world would say he undeniably deserves: Hero.
On Friday, April 17, Springfield College will host Tom Waddell Day in recognition of the Springfield College graduate, class of ’59. The events, which will begin at 9 a.m. in the campus union Dodge Rooms, include a video message from Waddell’s daughter, Jessica Waddell-Lewinstein ,and her mother, Sara; a panel discussion by friends and classmates of Waddell; and a keynote address given by second-year graduate student Rob Kearney.
The program, sponsored by Humanics professor Marty Dobrow, is part of an initiative to celebrate Springfield College’s connections with social justice.
“We wanted this to be a big celebration for the values that I think Springfield College should stand for,” Dobrow said, “about really being true to yourself and being in support of openness to all people—all races, all religions, all sexual orientations. To me, that’s what Humanics at its best is, the entirety of the species that is the opposite of prejudice. That’s what I think we should be about.”
Phyllis Plotnick, class of ’69 and a speaker on Friday’s panel, said she first heard of Waddell from a friend who, back in the 1980s, had participated in the Gay Games, a quadrennial, Olympic-style competition in which all levels of athletes can compete. Waddell founded the Games in 1982. Plotnick then read Waddell’s obituary, which had been published in 1987 in the College’s alumni magazine. Though the article didn’t mention Waddell’s involvement with the Gay Games, Plotnick said it was something she had always kept in the back of her mind.
It wasn’t until 2009 that Waddell’s story drifted back to Plotnick. A news story local to the College that appeared on national television shows like ABC News and The Oprah Show had caught her attention. Eleven-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover, a sixth-grader at a Springfield, Mass. elementary school, had reportedly taken his own life after being relentlessly taunted and called gay by his classmates. The tragedy, for Plotnick, triggered thoughts of Waddell.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be something if our College, because of its emphasis on inclusivity and making sure everyone and anyone is respected,” Plotnick said, “brought Dr. Waddell’s ideas and legacy to the forefront.”
Plotnick viewed Waddell’s legacy as an opportunity to focus on the problem of “otherness” through programs that would educate people on all kinds of diversity. She has since created an endowment fund in Waddell’s name, which she hopes will be used as a way to further Springfield College’s Humanics philosophy by reaching out to students of more diverse backgrounds and creating a greater celebration of diversity on campus.
Waddell’s story also hit home in other ways for Plotnick, who kept her sexuality a secret while on campus in the 1960s.
“While I was on campus, it wasn’t even an idea, coming out,” Plotnick said. “Most of us had shame and felt like we needed to be somebody other than who we are. I think if we celebrate [Waddell’s life], if people got to know what he stood for when it was particularly hard to be who he was, we could have more of that kind of acceptance.”
Waddell made his sexuality known in one of the most public ways possible, coming out in the 1976 issue of People magazine. Long-time friend and track team co-captain Jack Savoia remembered that day.
“When it first came out, my reaction was, ‘What?’ I never would have known it,” Savoia said. “But within an hour, I was saying to myself, so what? I think that was the biggest lesson for me. To me, it was, ‘so what?’”
Savoia and Waddell first met in some of the skills classes they both took as freshman Physical Education majors at Springfield College. Waddell and Savoia were both members of the varsity track team, and later on, both men switched their majors to pre-med.
“We were the best of friends and we cared for each other,” said Savoia, who is from Ludlow, Mass. “Tom and I had some great experiences together.”
After graduating from college, Savoia went on to become a dentist, and has recently celebrated his fiftieth year in the practice. He continued to keep in touch with Waddell, visiting his friend at medical school where Waddell was studying to become a doctor specializing in infectious diseases. The three-sport athlete, also a member of the gymnastics team, switched his major after the death of one of his teammates, who was a pre-med major.
In a way, Dobrow said, this new occupation was just another representation of the ways in which Waddell was able to personally affect the lives of others.
“In one sense, I find it very symbolic because his life was so much about healing in many, many respects,” Dobrow said. “Even all these years later, it’s about healing.”
Waddell’s professional passion for infectious diseases took a tragic turn in the mid-’80s when he contracted the HIV virus.
It was in a televised interview on 20/20 that Savoia learned Waddell was sick with AIDS.
“Once the show got through, I immediately called Tom,” Savoia said, “and we expressed our love for each other. I asked him if he would like me to come out to San Francisco, and I went out there for four or five days.”
Savoia later had the opportunity to pay tribute to his friend, accepting the Springfield College Athletics Hall of Fame plaque on Waddell’s behalf at the induction ceremony in 1990. The induction, according to Savoia, was long overdue, something he felt had been avoided due to the committee’s feelings about Waddell’s sexuality. When Waddell was finally recognized, however, it was a day that Savoia said was great not only for Waddell, but for the Springfield College family.
“Anytime you think about it, you have to take a step back,” Savoia said. “And then it all comes back to you. It’s always going to be that way. He was a pioneer for humanity for sure. He broke a lot of barriers. It took the momentum of this individual to break the stereotype [of gay athletes], change the whole dynamic of it.”
Senior Keaton Pieper is a three-time national champion on the Springfield College men’s volleyball team. He is also one of the few openly gay athletes at the College.
“I think everything Waddell has done while at Springfield and well after has given Springfield an opportunity,” Pieper said, “an opportunity to claim and own the acceptance of a specific—and in most cases neglected and ignored—community. Waddell has brought to light, in the most positive of ways, a subject that can be rather uncomfortable for most but necessary for all. I think highlighting his legacy here at Springfield is extremely important and beneficial for athletes today because it demonstrates the course of a journey that has come a long way in recent years but still has a long way to go.”
There are many parts to Tom Waddell’s history—his controversial thoughts about the Vietnam War when he himself was a paratrooper, his work as a physician supporting Martin Luther King in Selma, his sixth-place finish in the decathlon at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
But behind all of those accomplishments was a man whose achievements were lauded while his personal life was kept in the shadows because the world just wasn’t ready to accept him for who he was.
Friday’s Tom Waddell Day is a chance for Springfield College to finally restore what is missing from its narratives about one of its most renowned alums, to give proper credit to a man whose life example defines Humanics in every sense of the word.