Tom Mulhern is dying.
Ron Moir died in August.
Chances are good that no one in this area heard of either one of these two gentlemen but since this tends to be such a small world, it wouldn’t surprise me if a couple of you do know who they are.
Major league entertainers such as Robin Williams and Joan Rivers have passed with great fanfare and rightfully so because they touched so many lives.
Mulhern and Moir may not have touched millions of lives, but they have touched thousands and made a huge impact on people they have come in contact with.
Moir was my nephew. He died suddenly at age 48. His death was a huge shock to our family. He didn’t seem to have any health issues that we knew of, but succumbed to a blood clot to the lung and was gone.
I would see him a couple of times a year and knew that he worked his way up the educational ladder and reached the lofty position of principal at a grade school in Ottawa. Illinois, not Canada.
His wake drew about 1,000 people. Some folks had to stand in line for two hours to get close to the casket. There were teachers, students, former students, parents, colleagues and even a woman who drove a school bus who had glowing things to say about him.
The Ottawa Times did a story on him and reporter Michael Billy regaled stories of how Ron brought freeze pops for teachers and workers in the building during 100 degree days his first summer as the school’s boss and how he helped a special needs student with his bus situation after trouble brewed.
“He went above and beyond for my son,” the student’s mother told Billy.
Those are the kind of things that didn’t come up during our Thanksgiving conversations. We talked Cubs. We talked books. We talked history.
We talked about our kids and their athletic careers. When he got to the top as a principal, we started talking about the jolly fun we had of attending school board meetings.
After we burped up turkey and watched football games, it never occurred to him to say “Oh, by the way, a couple of weeks ago I helped a special-needs kid with his bus situation.” It was just another of many cool things that he did for people that was routine for him. No reason to bring it up.
Way up north in North Dakota, a journalist named Jerry Burnes wrote a column about how Ron was his journalism teacher at Wilmington High School and inspired him to get into this racket. “I am forever thankful to you, Moir, and I hope you keep on reading,” was how Burnes closed the tribute.
Having someone die sudden and young is tragic enough but it’s also a shame that Ron wasn’t around to see how many lives he touched or all the nice things these people in the funeral home had to say about him.
That brings me to Mulhern.
I worked with Tom in the mid-1980s in Joliet and we weren’t real close. However I do remember a long phone conversation I had with him while I was mulling leaving home to take a full-time job in Crystal Lake. He gave good advice and was very encouraging to me and it lessened my angst about taking the job.
Another thing that I remember is that my mom, who usually only read my stories in the sports section, somehow became a big fan of his columns. There was something about his writing style she liked. After I left Joliet to work in Crystal Lake, she called one day tell me Mulhern was leaving to take his dream job of covering the Green Bay Packers and how much she would miss him.
I would bump into him every year or two and it was evident that covering the Pack wasn’t exactly a dream job anymore and he left that beat and spent the rest of his career on the University of Wisconsin football beat.
This summer, he found out he was a one-in-a-million guy.
And that’s not a good thing.
Mulhern, who is in his late 50s, was told he contracted Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease and it’s a neurological disorder that affects one out of a million people. Those who gets it usually have about six months to a year to live.
The good news is that he is reportedly is not feeling sorry for himself and told one reporter he is going to enjoy every moment he can while he is still around.
Another cool wrinkle is that he can get a pretty good grasp on how people feel about him.
He received calls from many people including Wisconsin athletic heavyweights such as Bret Bielema (now the coach at Arkansas), Paul Chryst (now the coach at Pitt) and Scott Tolzein (who is the backup Packers quarterback).
Sports writers, not usually a sentimental group, are showing their soft side.
“It’s awfully hard to type with tears in your eyes,” wrote Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates.
ESPN Wisconsin’s Jason Wilde wrote about a life-changing lunch he had with Mulhern in New Orleans in 1997 and came to the conclusion “This is the guy I want to be.’’ And he meant it as a sportswriter, husband and father. And the kid wasn’t even married yet.
“There are so, so many other people whose lives are better, in ways big and small, because if him. I am at a loss.” Wilde wrote.
Rather than look ahead of the horror of what could be a sooner-than-expected death, Mulhern looked back on his career and told Wilde “When you start adding it up, I’ve been pretty lucky.”
The University of Wisconsin is setting up a scholarship named in Mulhern’s honor and chances are good that somewhere in Ottawa, someone will be cooking up some kind of tribute to Moir.
Those of us who knew these two fellas are devastated about these turn of events this summer.
But we are very lucky to have known these guys.