By Jack Margaros
Nearly six years ago on April 17, Springfield College instituted Tom Waddell Day.
It is a celebration dedicated to one of the College’s greatest athletes ever. Waddell, before competing in the 1968 Olympics as a decathlete, was a three-sport powerhouse at Springfield. He was part of the football, gymnastics and track and field teams — excelling the most in track and field.
He entered the 1968 Olympics as a decathlete and placed sixth. Aside from his athletic endeavors, Waddell became a physician, traveling around the globe to provide medical service to impoverished areas. He was a fierce social justice advocate, supporting his teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they protested at the Olympics.
Almost a decade after, in 1976, Waddell came out as gay and appeared in the “Couples” section of People magazine with his then partner, Charles Deaton. Waddell founded the “Gay Games” in 1982, an event similar to the Olympics that promotes equality for all, in particular athletes that identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Waddell was a humanitarian in the truest sense. He passed away in 1987, so he was unable to attend Springfield’s dedication day in 2015.
Although, his daughter, Jessica Waddell-Lewinstein Kopp, was there — accompanied by her mother, Sara Lewinstein, and Jack Savoia – Waddell’s classmate in the late 50s.
She was a young adult at the time, and was starting to understand the scope of her father’s legacy. More importantly, she learned of his affinity for Springfield College.
“It really was a pivotal moment in his life where everything came together and made sense,” Waddell-Lewinstein Kopp said. “He knew what direction he wanted to go with his life and I think he can attribute that to Springfield College.”
Jessica’s father passed away when she was three. She doesn’t remember much about him, but the memories she does have are rich: Tom teaching her words, asking her what color his new car should be and racing around the track. She likes to think Tom would let her win.
“They’re short and small memories that I’ve held on to for all of these years,” she said.
Growing up alongside his legacy, Jessica was exposed to the countless stories from her relatives and family friends. Tom’s life was also well documented by various media outlets, so she was able to learn more about her father through articles, interviews and videos.
As she approached adulthood, Jessica came to the realization that she and her father shared many of the same traits. It became especially clear one day as she laid on her mother’s floor.
When she was a teenager, Jessica and her mother moved out of her childhood home where Tom lived. She wasn’t aware, but there was a handful of cassette tapes buried in the house that Tom had recorded for his daughter. Audio diaries of daily occurrences in the years leading up to his passing.
Tenants that lived in the house ended up taking the tapes for themselves, only to realize years later that they were meant for Jessica.
It wasn’t until she reached her twenties that she had gotten her hands on the tapes, receiving an unexpected package in the mail. She didn’t own a cassette player, so she traveled to her mother’s house.
Stretched out on the floor, listening to her father’s voice, she felt a stronger connection.
“It was him talking directly to me about what he did that day, how he was feeling,” she said. “I realized that a lot of me is him…It’s just amazing that even though he wasn’t around, I still have many of his traits and I think that’s made me closer to him over the years.”
Jessica is naturally drawn to continuing her father’s legacy. She’s been involved with the advancement of the Gay Games as an avid supporter and volunteer when she can. She stands for a lot of the same things her father did, such as equity for the LGBTQ+ community.
“We still need to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights on a global scale,” she said, explaining that not all countries are as accepting of the community as America is. “I’ve had a number of conversations over the years where people don’t realize how hard it still is to be someone from the LGBTQ+ community in the world.”
The Gay Games has continued to evolve over the years, with more countries, events and participants being involved. Gay Games 11 is slated for 2022 in Hong Kong.
“When my dad was alive, it was just this really small event that had a really global impact right off the bat,” Jessica said. “It’s only continued over the years to grow.”
After visiting Springfield for the first time in 2015, Jessica will return virtually on Friday, April 9. She will serve as the keynote speaker for Springfield College’s sixth Annual Sports and Social Justice Symposium, highlighting her father’s legacy, and continuing to push for support of the Gay Games.
“I believe in everything that he stands for,” she said. “He was a remarkable human being. Even though I can never accomplish what he did in his lifetime, I still hope to bring some positivity in the world and continue his legacy.”
Friday’s event is set to begin at 1 p.m. Following Jessica’s presentation, a current Springfield College student-athlete will be recognized with the Tom Waddell “Level the Playing Field” Award. This annual award goes to a student-athlete who has worked diligently to build a fairer and more just world.
Photo Courtesy of Springfield College Digital Archives