He says he’s just an ordinary guy doing an ordinary thing, and that anyone can do what he does. He says he runs and he fund-raises, but it’s the people who support him, hundreds of them, friends and strangers, who are the wind beneath his wings.
“There’s a remarkable strain in America of people who want to help other people,” Tom Nealon insists. They’re the heroes. “There is nothing special about me.”
Nealon is 65. He lives in Florida. He’s a husband, father, and lawyer who ran his first marathon when he turned 50. He had to be persuaded to run, but after finishing the Walt Disney World Marathon in 4 hours and 44 minutes, Nealon was hooked.
Over the next few years, he ran marathons in Miami, Chicago, anywhere he could. He ran New York four times. But it was “the prestige” of running Boston that he wanted.
Because he wasn’t fast enough to qualify, he signed on to the American Liver Foundation Run for Research Team in 2003. It was a random choice. The team had an opening. All members had to raise $2,500. That first year, Nealon raised $16,000.
Then came a little boy.
As part of program that introduces runners to patients with liver disease, Nealon met Zac Rue before the 2004 marathon. “It was life-changing, something a whole lot bigger than running Boston,’’ Nealson said. “I felt like I’d been given a gift.”
Zac, who lives in Canton with his sister, Hannah, and his mother, Heather, was one year old at that time. Born with a liver disease called biliary atresia, Zac had already undergone an operation, the Kasai procedure, which attached part of his intestines to his liver and saved his life.
“My father was a surgeon,’’ said Nealon. “My brother is a surgeon. There’s lots of medicine in my family. But it was news to me that there is a liver disease that affects infants.”
The second year Nealon ran Boston, he raised $22,000. Then it was $43,000. Then $57,000. The American Liver Foundation said, why not set a total goal of a million?
Last year Nealon reached that goal, raising more than $212,000 for a total of $1 million over 10 years. “I’m not famous. I’m not an athlete or entertainer. I’m just a regular guy.” It’s the power of many, he says, that put him over the top.
Propelled by the power of one.
A prolific collector of business cards, Nealon sends out letters with stamped, self-addressed envelopes to more than 500 people. His e-mail list is bigger. He writes regularly and tells people about Zac, who is now 11. “People sense my passion,” he says.
Last year, on Marathon Monday, the temperature was in the 90s, and it took Nealon more than 7 hours to run. He collapsed at the finish line, had no pulse, and spent the night in the hospital. His wife said, “If you run again, I’ll divorce you.”
So this will be Nealon’s last marathon, not really running, he says, but running and walking. His goal is to raise $250,000, for a grand total of about $1.25 million.
This year Zac’s mother is running, too. “It may take me 9 hours or 24,’’ she says. “But I’ll do it.”
Nealon may be hanging up his running shoes, but he’s not giving up on Zac or the liver foundation. Because of Zac, he’s now the volunteer chairman of the board of directors of the American Liver Foundation. He calls Zac family. Zac says Nealon is family to us, too.
Doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital believe Zac will need a liver transplant before adulthood. To look at him, he seems like a typical kid. But he can’t play contact sports, and that makes him sad. His friends at school understand and support him, though, and their support, Zac says, means a lot.
“Nothing is impossible.” This is Nealon’s take-away. “If there is one lesson I’ve learned from all of this, it’s that.”
Donations can be made to the American Liver Foundation c/o Tom Nealon, 12500 SW 68th Court, Miami, Fla. 33156.