Tom Hartnett should have probably been a stand-up comic. He had a joke ready for almost any situation. If not, he’d deliver a pun. It was a family trait, passed down on his mother’s side, no doubt ultimately from Ireland. That sense of humor endeared him to many people in Bowie, Maryland, where he lived the latter portion of his life.
Born the middle of three boys in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the depths of the Depression, Tom’s sense of humor may have been a reaction to childhood trauma. When the boys’ Dad abandoned Mom Helen Hartnett, never to be seen again, she reluctantly put them—Daniel, Thomas, and William--into St. Thomas Orphanage. They were too young to understand why or for how long. All three boys possibly carried those scars into adulthood. Tom knew how to cover up feelings with humor.
While they never saw their Dad again, the boys were part of a large and close Irish clan—the Bartons, who surrounded them with love every holiday. Their Uncle Pat tried to be a “fill-in Dad” as much as possible, so they had at least one role model. Tom ultimately graduated from Cathedral High School, though he never played on the football team as he’d dreamed, and from there he joined the Air Force, looking for adventure.
In the service, Tom spent most of his time “out West” from Colorado to Nevada, finding adventures and misadventures until he was discharged with a disability that shaped the rest of his life. For several years, he disconnected from his family, trying various professions. He even tried traveling sales—imagine the jokes he shared with unsuspecting customers! In his early 30’s he found himself in brother Bill’s car—a bright red Corvair—traveling from Las Vegas to his Mom’s new home in Suitland, Maryland. She’d moved to Washington for a job with the Soil Conservation Service of the Department of Agriculture, and he settled in with her. Later they bought a beautiful home in Bowie.
Gratitude defined the rest of his life—Tom never forgot how lonely and misspent he considered the years he was disconnected from his family. So when Helen needed him, he was always there. He busied himself learning every street in Washington, D.C., and became known in the extended family as an excellent tour guide for their occasional visits. He’d be willing to wait outside any monument, major building, or obscure little museum so the visitors got to see it all without finding parking! He was especially good at knowing which D.C. sites are free.
One entire summer in the late 1960’s, Tom and Helen hosted two college student relatives, Ann and Mary Barton from Lincoln, who had been offered federal summer internships. Every day Tom drove the three family government workers to work at their center-city jobs and home at rush hour with no air conditioning!
For awhile in those days, he was fascinated with U.S. Presidents and never missed a public presidential event. The Secret Service took note, of course. His lanky figure was indeed noticeable. He always grasped a scruffy journal held by an old belt, full of tiny, little writing on haphazard scratch paper sticking out every which way. When the Secret Service found Helen to ask about him, she was shocked—“NO, he’s no danger to the President,” said his Mom, “In fact he’s a super patriot; don’t worry about him!” Apparently, they took her word for it. Fortunately, that stage passed.
Tom’s love of art led to his getting a degree in Art History at the University of Maryland and he dabbled in painting till the very end. His love of woodworking was a constant joy, too, and he delighted in making a new piece of furniture for the house. His tool collection is legendary.
But nothing attracted his attention more than people—he tirelessly cared for his Mother during her various illnesses, at home and in the hospital. And he was the center of a lively social group.
Late in life, he found his true love, Nancy Brown. Her three boys no doubt reminded him of his own early life. By then, he was also well known among the neighbors of Bowie who awarded him a “Neighbor of the Year” accolade for his helpfulness. Together, he and Nancy traveled the Mid-Atlantic, which they loved, and found their own little “beach house” in Rehoboth Beach as a vacation getaway they enjoyed sharing with each and every friend. They loved every day together until her sudden death in 2020.
Despite the newfound loneliness, Tom joined his local friends regularly for social events ranging from dancing to cards games to watching war movies. If he saw someone needed help, he’d be the first to offer.
Towards the end, Tom’s love of people brought him the surprise of his life—a son he’d never heard of! Through the TV show “Finding Your Roots,” the genetic services of “23andMe” and the thoroughly improbable coincidence of finding first-cousin-once-removed Mary Barton in the same town, Long Beach, California, musician Stan DeWitt discovered Tom Hartnett was his father! Though he was dumbstruck, Tom welcomed the discovery with open arms. They were both thrilled. A new light shone on Tom’s life, helping to ease the loss of Nancy, and open some musical doors for Tom’s endless curiosity.
Together, Tom and Stan, along with wife Lynda, traveled on both coasts. Stan introduced Tom to musicianship—from composing to playing--while Tom introduced Stan to more of his new Irish family! Stan gave some mini-concerts to Tom’s friends and relatives, while he basked in the reflected glow. Tom even envisioned himself producing a major concert at the Kennedy Center, raising money for the government debt, and he never gave up on that dream. Though bedbound near the end, Tom asked his beloved Stan to teach him more about music, at age 87. And Stan obliged.
In his last few months, Nancy’s son David and his wife Edlyn made sure Tom didn’t lack for companionship, and Tom always had a joke and smile for anyone who visited during his drawn-out decline. Though no longer standing up, Tom could still make the crowd laugh. A comic to the end.