Remembrance: Thomas Cleary, Richmond Community Activist 


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Thomas Cleary did not want an official obituary. He had his reasons, but generally speaking, he wasn't a man given to what he might consider undue hoopla. He made it clear, in his kind, persistent way, that he thought other people were much more interesting than he was.

There was something irrepressible about Cleary, even when he was older and had become sick and frail. Once a priest, he was tireless in his pursuit of a more just, peaceful society. He was an idealist but not a dreamer, a gentle man with a fierce spirit.

"Gentle is a wonderful adjective for him," says his friend, John Gallini. "He didn't push himself on other people, but he definitely had strong views and he lived his life in accordance with those views — and he was arrested for those views."

At least twice.

"I'll never forget the day sometime in the late '90s that we spent together in a holding cell inside the Richmond federal courthouse after blockading the entrance in protest of U.S. human rights abuses in Latin America," wrote Jeff Winder, coordinator and community organizer at the Wayside Center for Popular Education, after hearing of Cleary's death.

The group agreed to a deal in which only one member would take the rap and make a statement, Winder recalled. "Tom shouted out so passionately in his raspy voice: 'Oh please let me be the one! Don't let me die without a conviction on my record!'"

Gallini says Cleary served as a Catholic priest in Central America in the late '50s and '60s and was devoted to liberation theology and its focus on economic and social justice for the poor. He left the priesthood, married and had a family. Cleary spoke fluent Spanish and often helped families in Richmond's Mexican immigrant enclaves with rides and translation.

"He never went out telling people the things that he did in the community," says Carolina Velez-Rendon, a consultant and volunteer community organizer at Wayside. "He was the most humble person I have ever met. … And as I got to know him I found out that besides being this amazing, gentle, angelical human being, he was this ridiculous revolutionary. He was this box full of surprises."

Many of his friends were decades younger, activists and organizers and teachers. "You're doing a great job," he'd say, and so nurtured spirits as generous and dedicated as his own.

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