HISTORIC MOMENT Tom Hanson receiving his Legion of Honour from the French Consul General, Valéry Freland in Boston on July 14.
Boston native Tom Hanson, a repeat visitor to Westport town, served in World War II, continued to teach until he was 91, and was recently presented with the French Legion of Honour
When you sit down to and talk to New York resident Tom Hanson, you very quickly realise that this is no ordinary 96-year-old. It is clear that whatever Tom has done in his life, he has done it on his own terms.
He only retired from teaching five years ago, and apart from being a little hard of hearing, there is nothing to suggest he is only four years off being a centenarian. His mind is sharp - and his wit is even sharper.
When Tom tells a story, whether it is about his time serving in World War II, getting mugged and almost dying on the streets of New York or learning to drive, you end up laughing.
“It’s my natural way, I don’t put it on. I’ve been told more than once to be serious and stop joking,” he told The Mayo News, who caught up with him on his annual holiday to Westport, before returning to the Big Apple.
The Boston native first made a visit to his mother’s home town in 1960, and apart from only two years in between, the life-long bachelor has always booked a few weeks in the summer to return home.
“I didn’t know what to do that summer  so I went to a travel bureau. They talked me into going to Ireland for $400 round trip. I knew I had an aunt and uncle over here. I landed in Shannon and took a train from there to Westport … a bit like The Quiet Man,” he said in his distinctive New England drawl.
Recently, the Westport Tourism Organisation honoured him for his loyalty to the town and made a presentation to him in the Wyatt Hotel, which was the first place he stayed in Westport.
His first impressions of Westport was that it was not particularly clean and the air was smoky. The first person he talked to was nine-year-old Teresa Horan (now Teresa Lawless) from Peter Street, who was playing with friends at the Octogan. He asked her was there a hotel he could stay in and Teresa pointed him in the direction of the Central Hotel, now the Wyatt. To this day they remain good friends and for the last number of years Tom stays with Teresa and her family in her home in Kilmeena.
Tom’s mother Bridget, was a native of Bohea, Westport, who emigrated to Boston in 1904 when she was just 15-years-old. The story of how she moved to the US is a remarkable one and illustrates how different society was in Ireland back then.
“Her older sister, Mary was supposed to go to America. But on the morning Mary was to leave she woke up and said ‘I’m not going Ma’. My grandmother went over to my mother, woke her up and said ‘Bridgie you’ll have to get up and go to America, Mary won’t go’. Somebody had to go. The ticket was $35 at that time and it had to be used.”
An older sister was in Boston waiting for her and Bridget got a job as a waitress, before getting other cleaning jobs in the city. She married an American in 1916 and settled in the south end of Boston city and had three children, Tom being the youngest.
Not long after arriving in Westport, Tom found out where his aunt Mary and uncle William lived and paid them a visit.
“I knocked on the door and they wouldn’t open the door. They must have thought I was a tax collector or something,” he laughed. “I could hear them talking through the door. ‘Who is it?’ ‘It’s a man!’ ‘What does he want?’ ‘Don’t open the door’. I told them I was from America and Bridgie was my mother, and when they heard that they then opened the door.”
At the age of 20, Tom enlisted in the US Army on December 19, 1942 and in August 1944 he crossed the English Channel to join the front-line of General Patton’s Third Army in their advance across Europe.
“He [Patton] was in my outfit one day and he was standing up when someone told him to get his behind down as he was drawing fire,” he said on the only time he saw the controversial US war-hero.
As a front line soldier, Tom saw action at close quarters. “Was I scared? No more than anyone else. I don’t think I was scared very often. You do get used to it.
“You’re life was always in danger in the infantry. Every time you stopped you had to start digging a foxhole. You didn’t have a chance to wash your clothes. I used to take a bath in a puddle in the streets. It is a very primitive way of living.”
One of the most famous battles of World War II was The Battle of the Bulge which was later made into a movie. Asked to recall his memories of the battle, Tom recalled. “I was sitting on a fence and waiting to go on guard. One of the GI soldiers came over and said: ‘Did you hear the greatest news Hanson? We are surrounded by Germans’. Oh that was the greatest news. I was thinking, gee I have another year or two of this.”
Thankfully for Tom, the war ended sooner than then and he made it all the way to the River Elbe in Germany without even a scratch.
“There is an expression in the army which the infantry man would say; ‘If I’m alive tomorrow I’ll…’ You always hoped for a slight wound to get you into the back and spend a week or so in the field hospital. I never even used a bandaid. It was amazing.”
The German surrender did not end the war against Japan. Tom and his company were on a boat in the Pacific preparing for the invasion of Japan when word got through the war was over.
“Everyone was happy but there were no celebrations.” Surely the end of the war would spark wild celebrations. Why so? “We all had dysentery. We had chicken on board the boat and everyone caught dysentery from the chicken. It was awful. There wasn’t that many toilets. You would get off the toilet and get in line again. It was a continual long line,” he recalled with a laugh.
French Legion of Honour
Earlier this year, Tom was contacted by the French Counsel in Boston and asked to attend a ceremony to mark Bastille Day. On the day, Tom and another veteran were presented with the French Legion of Honour, the highest French military or civilian honour for his duty to liberate France in World War II.
“I don’t know why they gave me such a high honour. There was so many thousands and thousands … so many other soldiers did the same thing I did.”
After his discharge from the army, Tom took advantage of the free education offered to veterans to get his high school diploma. He enrolled in Suffolk University near Boston where he completed a BA in Arts and over the years has obtained a BA in Business and Finance along with an MA in Education and another in History.
He spent four years teaching in Massachusetts and another year teaching in Europe with the military before spending over 50 years teaching in New York City.
“I was the oldest teacher in New York...when I left I was 91,” he explained. “I loved teaching, there was nothing like it. It was like a performance. I used to leap out of bed in the morning,” he enthused about his profession.
Tom still lives in the heart of New York city in The Bronx which he says has changed from a mainly Irish and Italian neighbourhood to Hispanic and African American. Despite the changes he has no intention of leaving the hustle and bustle of city life.
“I like cities there is plenty of activity, plenty of people, plenty of places to go to,” he said and even getting mugged eight times wouldn’t put him off. “I wouldn’t let them change my style of living.”
One of the reasons Tom likes Westport is that there is plenty of activity along the streets and the people are friendly. In 1962 he paid for two stain glass windows in St Mary’s Church in Westport - one of St Jarlath and the other of the Crucification. When he was able he climbed Croagh Patrick over 40 times and experienced the Lough Derg Pilgrimage 23 times.
“It [Lough Derg] is a wonderful experience. You meet real people. There is no phoniness about them. We are all in bare feet and climbing over rocks. At three o’clock in the morning everyone is tired. Your clothes are dirty, your hair is messed up, it’s pouring rain. It is the real person you experience. It wasn’t easy but you feel wonderful when you leave. I would encourage anyone to do it.”
Tom says he was told by his doctor in the US that his health is ‘fantastic’ and already plans on returning to Westport next year. He says his secret to long life is saying the rosary every day and not abusing your body. “The good habits are no alcohol, or cut down on it, no cigarettes or smoking, no salt … and a little sugar.”
With no signs of slowing down, few would argue against him.