Sunday, June 30, 2013

Thomas B. McNulty, Jr. (1930-2013)

Whoever has a true desire to be in heaven is in heaven spiritually at that very time.
~ Anon., The Cloud of Unknowing (14th c.)
I'm the son-in-law—husband of Nancy, Tom's daughter. So, I’m not a blood relation, but Eleanore has given me the privilege of saying a few words about Tom, and I’m truly honored.

My first introduction to Tom was through Nancy of course, and, specifically, through his books. I think it was the first time Nancy and I really spent time together—I’d just moved into a house across from her place, and she invited me over for a cup of coffee and a get-acquainted chat. Maybe this is a peculiar habit, but when I visit someone’s home, I can’t help but look at the books in the bookcases. It tells me something about the people I’m visiting, what they’re interested in, what they care about.

As I looked through Nancy’s bookcases while she prepared the coffee, I was struck by how many volumes we had in common—a full set of the Catholic encyclopedia, for example, and lots of Classics of Western Spirituality. Even then, on our first meeting, I thought that we’d have to give away a lot duplicate books if we got married.

Carl Spitzweg, The Bookworm (ca. 1850)
As you can guess, the majority of the books in Nancy’s collection were from Tom, so looking through the shelves in her apartment told me as much about her dad as about Nancy. You all know this about Tom, I’m sure. He was an insatiable book hound and book pusher—and not just to his family. Has anyone here not been given a book by Tom?

The book thing was underscored when I visited the McNultys here in Omaha shortly after Nancy and I got engaged. There were books everywhere in the house—really, everywhere. And then Tom took me out to his favorite used bookstore in town—the Antiquarium, where he was on a first name basis with the proprietor—and we spent time getting to know each other by hunting for bargains and swapping favorites. Pretty much whenever I saw Tom after that, a bookstore prowl was something I count on.

Something else I could count on when coming to Omaha was an endless supply of candy, ice cream, and other things that we tried to reserve as special treats in our own home. This meant that, most assuredly, our seven kids always anticipated visits to or from Grandpa McNulty with great enthusiasm knowing that they’d be showered with Tootsie Rolls continuously.

That’s an example of Tom’s famous generosity, but it did have its limits. For example, he was, shall we say, a determined driver, and he did not suffer fools gladly. Many the trip to the grocery store or a bookstore with Tom behind the wheel combined a high level theological stream of conversation with an intermittent sampling of strong language and epithets directed toward other drivers who crossed him in some way.

Speaking of theological conversation, Tom was one of the most educated, articulate laymen I’ve ever met. He was a perpetual student—which accounts for his vast, ever expanding library—and a perpetual teacher. He loved the Bible particularly, the Old Testament especially, along with the great spiritual masters and mystics. And, as Mary Kate and Steve mentioned at the wake, Tom didn’t just know that stuff—he also lived it. 

Tom reading to Nick and Cecilia
Then, there’s his family. I’m a convert to Catholicism, so growing up I didn’t have a vision for what Catholic family and fatherhood was all about. Tom and Ellie and the McNultys filled in those gaps for me, and Tom in particular gave me an idea of how a Catholic man—despite faults and shortcomings—ought to love his wife and his children, how to put them first, ahead of work, career, personal interests.

He provided and protected, of course, but he also led—in faith, first and foremost. Mass (daily Mass in fact), Sacraments, the Rosary, Catholic education and formation—these were all non-negotiables for Tom, and I know he prayed for his growing family—children, their spouses, the grandchildren—regularly, every day. He was a prayer warrior then; I’m sure he continues to be one now. 

And not just leadership in faith, but also in courage, and in this he was a warrior as well. I think my favorite story about Tom revolves around the Supreme Court’s infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that legalized abortion throughout the United States.

For years on the anniversary of the decision, Tom brought members of his family downtown to march around the federal courthouse, despite the bitter January cold and snow. He knew the momentous gravity of what happened that day, and he knew that it was important to publicly demonstrate his opposition—important to himself, but especially important to his children.

It was a matter of principle, after all, for the actual impact of the picketing on the course of politics or legislation made little difference, but Tom knew it made an impact where it really counted—at home. It was legacy of integrity and fortitude and strength—and it was a legacy of kindness as well, as he was known to cross the street to the bus station to buy all the other marchers hot chocolate.

That legacy lives on in his children, and, God willing, it will live on in his grandchildren—my children—as well. Rest in peace, Tom McNulty. Well done, good and faithful servant; well done, faithful warrior. But don’t leave the ramparts just yet. Keep doing battle for us, and strengthen us through your prayers.

Remarks at the conclusion of Tom's funeral Mass on June 28, 2013, at Mary Our Queen Parish in Omaha, Nebraska.

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