I barely got the words “yellow eraser” out of my mouth when a strapping young man seated near the wall began to rise. “That’s him,” Chris Vaxmonsky said, pointing with his thumb, and the entire Vaxmonsky family began to laugh. Mission accomplished, I thought.
I had put on my mask and gone to Howell-Lussi Funeral Home primarily to pay respect to my old friend Tom Vaxmonsky, but also to add a light note, if I could, to what I knew would be a somber occasion. The Vaxmonskys willingly obliged. As soon as I introduced myself, they knew what was coming. I had written a little story about their dad close to 20 years ago. Obviously, they remembered it.
I was editor of the local newspaper in the early 2000s, but was pressed into service with a camera one day when there was no one available to shoot a Halloween parade on Main Street. My reward was bumping into Tom Vaxmonsky. As always, his face lit up when he saw me. Tom had a way of making everyone feel you were the most important person in the world.
When I asked what he was doing there, he said he had brought his grandson. “That’s him,” he said, “the big yellow eraser.”
I looked over and realized “the big yellow eraser” was actually Sponge Bob Square Pants.
“Your dad was such a jokester,” I said to Chris at the funeral home. “Do you think he was pulling my leg?”
“Oh, no,” Chris answered, “He really thought he was a big yellow eraser.”
That little boy was Jake Vaxmonsky, son of Tom’s eldest son, Jake. He’s now 23 years old. His mom, Nancy, a seamstress, had made the costume.
I first met Tom Vaxmonsky 50 years ago when he was named head football coach at Wyoming Area. I was writing sports then and was on the sidelines with a clipboard at nearly every one of Tom’s games. His first two Warrior teams were Wyoming Valley Conference champs. But it was Tom the man, not Tom the coach who left a lasting impression on me. And Tom the man begins and ends with Tom the father. That was evident even on the Warrior sidelines, where you’d find his five young sons running around during games. His lone daughter was too young or she would have been there too.
“That was my dad,” Jake Vaxmonsky said when he and his brother Mike and I got together last Sunday to reminisce. “He brought us everywhere.” Everywhere included family camping trips, a couple of weeks every summer at Assateague Island, Maryland, and even a month-long trip down the East Coast to Disney World, camping along the way. “You should have seen us when we’d pull into a campground,” Jake said. “We swung into action like a football team. Everyone had a role.”
“He continued to spend time with us all of our lives,” Mike Vaxmonsky said, recalling all five boys and their dad going hunting. “He loved being a dad.”
“When we were in college,” Jake added, “he would read every book we were assigned. Actually, he wouldn’t just read them, he’d consume them. He wanted to be able to talk with us about anything we were interested in.”
All six Vaxmonsky siblings are successful in their careers, with five in the field of medicine. Jake is an occupational therapist, Tom an optometrist, Mike a doctor of osteopathic medicine, Dave a pharmacist, and Lori Ann, a registered nurse who spent several years affiliated with Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“But Chris might be the most successful of us all,” Jake said. “He’s a jeweler.”
Before settling into that field, however, Chris was a nationally ranked surfer. “At one time,” Mike said of his younger brother, “he was first in the nation in the long board.”
What Jake and Mike remember most about their dad, and they said their siblings would agree, is that he was a man of principle. “He took his role as a mentor seriously,” Jake said, “and not just with us, but with every player he coached, every student he taught. He‘d say you had to stand up for what you believe in. You had to take responsibility for your actions. And his overarching philosophy was to be a person who infrequently asked for help, but who frequently asked to help.”
That was most evident following the flood of 1972 when Coach Vaxmonsky would show up with his players to help clean someone’s property.
“My dad never had an alcoholic drink,” Jake said. “Water and black coffee, that was it.”
“Neither did my mom,” Mike added. “They had bottles of alcohol they got as wedding gifts and never opened.”
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Jake said his dad loved science and loved physical fitness and that led him to a device called the “Exer-Genie.” It came out in 1961 as a training tool for astronauts and eventually was employed by everyone from NFL football players to Navy Seals. “He used it every day,” Jake said. “There’s still an original one hanging in one of his doorways.”
“My dad was a religious guy, too,” Jake said. “He truly believed every soul was important. He believed a single person could inspire others and that no one should ever be tossed aside.”
Jake and Mike said their dad and mom shared a common philosophy that “all things are possible.” Their dad believed that our responsibility as a society is to “take care of people’s needs, and in that way, you elevate them.”
Sometimes, as I found out firsthand, Tom could elevate a person just by showing interest in him. And I wasn’t the only one who knew this. At the viewing, Bob Licata, who played high school football not for Coach Vaxmonsky but against him, told the family their dad was “the type of person you’d cross the street just to say hello to.”
Thomas Vaxmonsky passed away on Nov. 14. He was 83 years old and still planned to go hunting with his boys this year. Doing what he loved best: being a dad.