The belongings the U.S. Army returned to the late soldier’s family included a 35 millimeter camera Thomas Urban Way had been given as a gift before he shipped out to Vietnam. His parents eventually had the film in it developed. One of the photographs showed Tom in his army fatigues surrounded by a bunch of smiling Vietnamese children.
The St. John Fisher College alum can be seen demonstrating how to dribble a soccer ball with his combat boots. The photo had been snapped a few days before Tom was killed by enemy fire at age 23 on Oct. 9, 1967, in the Mekong Delta. The picture was worth way more than a thousand words to his loved ones. It was priceless, and it said everything you needed to know about him.
“That was Tom,” reminisced Betty Bufano, his older sister. “Even in difficult situations, he tried to remain positive and help others. It gets to his essence.”
Nearly a half-century later, the photograph inspired the sculpture of Way that greets pedestrians between Founders Hall and the Polisseni Track & Field Complex on the St. John Fisher campus. There he is, soccer ball at his feet, with two enthusiastic Vietnamese kids looking up at him, their arms on his back.
“I was just blown away by the statue when I saw it for the first time at the unveiling in 2015,” Bufano said. “The sculptor (Timothy Schmalz) captured him perfectly—not only Tom’s likeness, but his spirit. That statue brought him back to life.”
And it will ensure that his spirit never dies on the campus where he made his mark as a student, soccer player, leader and friend.
“I’ve often said that Tom’s goal in life was to see how many friends he could accumulate,” Bufano said. “His love of people is what stands out. Tom liked you whether you were like him or not like him. He was known for his athletic ability; he was a natural at whatever he took up. But he also had many friends who were not athletes, who couldn’t catch a ball or throw a ball or hit a ball or kick a ball. It didn’t make any difference to him. He just loved people, and people loved being around him.”
Jerry Vasile, who graduated from Fisher a year after Way in 1967, was among the scores of friends accumulated. As a part of freshman orientation, Vasile and his college classmates were required to sing the alma mater, translate the school’s Latin mottos and grab a Fisher beanie atop a greased pole while impeded by upperclassmen.
“Tom was one of the upperclassmen, and, in that realm, he seemed like a real hard guy,” Vasile recalled. “But after the festivities, the real Tom came out, and every freshman came to love and respect him. We saw a guy who always gave you his undivided attention and who would give you the shirt off his back. Just a great, great guy to be around.”
Vasile played football at Fisher but managed to attend many of his friend’s soccer matches.
“Tom was a fierce competitor,” he said of Way, who also excelled at soccer at McQuaid Jesuit High School. “He was scrambling, nonstop, from the start of the game to the finish. And he absolutely hated to lose. But when the game was over, regardless the outcome, he would go out of his way to extend a hand to his opponents. He believed in good sportsmanship. He was a leader who showed how to be gracious in victory and accepting in defeat. He kept things in perspective.”
Way’s sense of humor was another endearing quality. People fondly remember his impish nature. He loved pulling pranks.
“There would be times when he’d get one of us (four) siblings so upset over something,” Bufano said. “But we couldn’t stay mad at him, because he’d melt you with that infectious smile and those twinkling green eyes. He was just a happy kid.”
After graduating with a sociology degree, Way landed a sales job with Eastman Kodak Co. His charisma and acumen made him a success from the start, and he rapidly climbed the corporate ladder. He also proposed to his longtime girlfriend. Way’s future seemed boundless. And then he received his draft notice. He went to boot camp, and in late September 1967, he left to fight in the Vietnam War.
He wrote home several times, his letters describing, in harrowing detail, the constant gunfire and oppressive jungle heat. He celebrated his 23rd birthday on Oct. 4 and was killed five days later.
Vasile, who was studying for his master’s degree at Xavier University in Cincinnati, was devastated. He had just invested what little money he had in an engagement ring. Sans a car or cash for a train or bus ticket, he couldn’t make it back to Rochester for his friend’s funeral. That absence would haunt Vasile for decades.
He never stopped thinking about Way’s kindness and all the good times they shared in their short time together. Someday, he vowed, he would do something to make sure his friend was never forgotten.
“Someday” arrived two years ago, on Veterans Day, when Vasile and others unveiled the bronze statue. “I finally had closure,” he said. “It was a beautiful ceremony, with a choir and color guard and people who loved Tom. It was like the memorial service I couldn’t go to all those years ago.”
The statue makes a moment in time timeless. Those who stroll by it are able to read plaques on the pedestal that tell not only who Way was, but what he was about. One is titled: The “Way” Legacy. It reads: “No matter the place or circumstance, we can make a positive difference in the life of others.”
It’s a profound message, poignantly relevant for this Memorial Day, and every day, for that matter.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.