He wasn’t famous, yet nearly 1,000 mourners came to his funeral service. He had little money but measured in the love people had for him; he was a vastly wealthy man.
He was Tom Concannon, the head of the Brooklyn Federal Defender Division of the Legal Aid Society, who died at the age of 61 in 2005. Why was he loved by so many people? Because he uplifted their lives and today, he may uplift yours.
As a young man, Concannon was a rising star at giant Citicorp. And he looked the part, wearing expensive pin striped suits and winged tip shoes.
But in 1971 at the age of 27, he and a close friend took an eight month journey that dramatically changed his life.
Concannon and Steve Roberts traveled throughout Asia, including one month in Nepal. Then they joined a group of hippies in an old yellow school bus, and traveled from India to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Turkey.
Concannon saw up close, how the people of the Third World desperately struggle each day to get enough food. He encountered endless numbers of illiterate people who had no running water, in-door plumbing, electricity or other basics we take for granted.
He saw defenseless children dying of malnutrition or of diseases mostly eliminated in the First World.
He saw societies in which humanity could be imprisoned, tortured or even murdered with no one held accountable. Offenses could be as slight as having the wrong political beliefs or practicing the wrong religion.
When he returned to New York, Concannon committed himself and his powerful legal skills to help the poor. He rejected the pursuit of big houses, fancy cars and more possessions, which he now viewed as meaningless.
He quit Citicorp and became an attorney in the public defender’s office at a fraction of his old salary. And he began wearing cheap suits. When the pants wore out, he took hand-me-down pants from Steve Roberts or bought pants at a security guard uniform store that sort of matched.
In 1980, Concannon became Attorney-in-Charge of Brooklyn’s Federal Defender Division overseeing five other attorneys. Over the next 25 years, he and what grew into 14 attorneys defended more than 20,000 poor people. He personally conducted about 2,000 of those cases.
Jan Rostal, an attorney who worked with Concannon for 15 years said, “What made Tom so good…was that he loved his job. What made him so good [with] people was that he loved them too.
“What Tom did as a career public defender was become Social Worker-in-Chief to thousands of poor people…arrested by the federal authorities. Most of his clients were not like him…They were different colors and spoke different languages; they were from different countries and ate different foods.
“But...Tom [related] to each of them. To the Ghanaian peasant who swallowed heroin in order to earn $3,000 to support her kids, Tom talked about a Nigerian author he’d read and asked her to tell him what nursery rhymes she tells her kids in Accra.
“To the 60 year old bank robber who had spent the last 15 years in prison and robbed [a] bank within weeks on the street, Tom joked about the hard knocks of stickball on the Brooklyn streets in the 1950’s.
“To the single mother from the Projects, Tom told stories about other women who got up the courage to boot the child custody-cheating boyfriends who were asking them to do “favors” for them in their drug businesses.”
If Concannon felt the defendant’s best option was to plead guilty and let him negotiate a reduced sentence, he privately conducted a mock trial in which the defendant would plead his or her case and he served as the prosecutor.
The defendant could then conclude how the case would likely turn out in real court.
Rostal said, “Then he would give his clients his shirts and his subway tokens, $20 here and there to get a decent meal or buy their kid a toy…”
Rostal added, “If Tom conducted a business meeting with you it was at the local coffee shop and he always bought. By the end of [the meeting] he had not only solved your problems (making ‘fix-it’ calls right from the pay phone or cell phone) but was mediating the waitress’s child custody dispute on the other line.
“Tom had a strong work ethic. He often returned calls standing up at the counter eating his spartan dinner at 11:30 p.m. and that was the first meal he’d had all day. He joined Boards and volunteered at shelters. He bought cookies at Zabar’s [a fancy deli] for the teachers whenever he went to his kids’ school functions.”
As for his family, he loved his wife of 30 years, Jan Mardfin, whom he called, “The Enchantress” and their children, Peter and Leah. He also loved his extended family. And if he had met you and me, that extended family would have included us as well.
In summing her husband up, Jan Mardfin referred to the board game “Monopoly” and said, “He’d let you stay on his property for free. He didn’t want to beat anyone, nor anyone to lose.”
Success Tip of the Week: If you want to make a big difference in the lives of others but don’t have Tom Concannon’s capacity for giving, you can have a major impact by sincerely caring and being a good listener. You could also offer a kind word or a timely hug. It’s these little acts that will help to make you special in the hearts of others.
Note From The Author. Thank you to Jan Mardfin, Jan Rostal, Steve Roberts and another close friend of Tom’s, Tom Ivanyi for their extensive assistance in preparing this story.
In the next KazanToday, If you’re seeking a greater sense of purpose, I’ll tell you about a man who didn’t find his true calling until he was 65 years old and in failing health. What he did next changed his life and ultimately the lives of thousands.