Thomas Egan, who died in the snow, was a decorated war veteran

Who was Thomas Egan? Above all else, he was one of us

From the Eugene Register-Guard, December 21 2008

A passerby found Thomas Lawrence Egan’s body at 5:30 p.m. last Tuesday. By then it was already dark. Egan was near a fence, partly covered by snow. He must have been lying there for some time, because no snow had fallen since the morning of the day before. With temperatures well below freezing, the medical examiner’s conclusion came as no surprise: Egan had died of “hypothermia due to environmental cold exposure.” He froze to death.

Who was Thomas Lawrence Egan?

We don’t know much about him. He was 60 years old and received Social Security benefits, presumably for some type of disability. He stayed at the Eugene Mission for a couple of weeks last summer, just a block away from the corner of Blair Boulevard and First Avenue where he died, so Egan had been among Eugene’s homeless for several seasons. A bottle was at his side, making it plain that alcohol was his friend and tormentor.

Who was Thomas Lawrence Egan?

Someone named him 60 years ago. He had a father and a mother, both probably long gone. There may be brothers or sisters, sons or daughters, a wife or a lover. There were teachers in his past, bosses, co-workers, friends. He might have led a tough life, but surely he wasn’t always cold and alone. The Eugene Mission’s manager of social services remembers him as “an interesting fellow, with a good Irish wit.” At some point he was loved, at some time he was a vessel for high hopes. His life intersected with many others, perhaps including our own in ways unknown to us.

Who was Thomas Lawrence Egan?

We might have looked into his eyes sometime in recent weeks or months, responding with that peculiar mixture of shame and annoyance that arises from encounters with homeless people. Maybe he was standing at a traffic light holding a cardboard sign, and we thought about handing him a dollar before resolving to send the money to a social service agency instead. Or maybe he was someone who never asked for a handout but would still be alive if he’d been given one. Then there are people who never reach for a lifeline, even when it is offered, and Egan could have been one of those.

But troubling thoughts persist. Was there a moment when some word or action, maybe from us, would have kept Egan alive? He must have lain there by the fence through two days and a night, and maybe longer. There were footprints in the snow near Egan’s body. How many saw him without recognizing the snow-covered shape as human? How many, having grown accustomed to seeing people asleep or passed out in the open, saw him but shrugged and went on their way? We’d like to think that if we had passed that corner, we’d have approached the snow-covered form and kneeled to say, “Hey, mister, are you all right?” But we can’t be certain that we’d have done that.

Who was Thomas Lawrence Egan?

Something led Egan to a life and a death on the streets — a series of bad breaks, a traumatic episode, an untreated illness, a weakness of character. What if his misfortunes had been deflected, or his deficiencies shored up somehow? What degree of human potential did he represent? If we place a low value on Egan’s life, we show the limitations of our imagination. If we respond in a casual way to his death, we show that our compassion has grown calloused. We are all poorer for the loss of not just the man Egan was, but the person he might have been.

Who was Thomas Lawrence Egan?

Egan died near Christmastime. The days are dark and cold. But people’s spirits are warmed by thoughts of hope, renewal and, for Christians and many others, the story of the birth of Jesus, whose own life and death are surely more clearly reflected in Egan than in shopping malls full of holiday merchandise.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Jesus was talking about his kinship with the hungry, the poor, the imprisoned and the sick.

He was talking about Thomas Lawrence Egan.

EXTRA – Homeless man who died in snow was a decorated war veteran, KVAL-TV
EXTRA – Hypothermia caused man’s death, Eugene Register-Guard, December 17 2008