Severn School Latin instructor Thomas P. “Doc” Heslin, who headed the school’s Italian exchange program and visited his favorite country – Italy – more than 20 times, was killed July 17 in a bicycle accident.
Remembering Severn School's Thomas P. "Doc" Heslin
“Back when we were dating and he was visiting me in Boston one weekend … there was this bagel shop that was open pretty late, and the lady who ran it was an older, embittered woman and she was just nasty all the time. On our way into the shop, he said, ‘I’m going to make her smile.’ And he did,” Severna Park’s Cindy Heslin recalled of a decades-past date with her late husband, Severn School Latin instructor Thomas P. “Doc” Heslin, Ph.D. “It took him maybe 10 minutes of just being nice and sweet and kind, and she ended up smiling. And that’s what he did – he was kind and he loved his students and his job.”
Heslin was a devoted husband, father, teacher and friend, and though his life was tragically cut short July 17 when he was struck by a dump truck while riding his bicycle along Berrywood Drive in Severna Park, his legacy of selflessness, optimism and love of learning will live on for years to come.
Born August 13, 1955, Heslin grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and attended Trinity College to obtain a bachelor’s degree in classics before pursuing a master’s and doctorate in linguistics at the University of Connecticut. In college, he met his wife, Cindy, an exchange student from Wellesley College, the day after he remarked to a friend that he wasn't interested in a serious relationship and may never get married. The pair celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary in July.
Heslin began teaching Latin at Severn School in 1986 and served as an inspiration and a second father to nearly every student who crossed the threshold of his classroom. His two sons, Mike and Andy, attended Severn and took Latin with him. School Headmaster Doug Legarde explained that, despite his extensive academic credentials, Heslin became affectionately known by students and staff as “Doc” for his intellect and ability to make any topic approachable for students.
Fellow Latin instructor George Yost, who described Doc “like your best friend in elementary school,” explained his comrade taught him when to say “no,” laughed whenever he said the word “duty” and was always his go-to guy in times of need. “If it was a bad day, or I had a problem with my car or one of the kids, I could simply just call him and say, ‘Can you do this? Can you help me out?’ And the answer would always be yes,” Yost remembered with a smile.
Throughout his life, Heslin maintained a stoic indifference to adversity, though he faced much during his 57 years: At the age of 8, he was diagnosed with diabetes, and later, he underwent a kidney transplant, a pancreas transplant, triple bypass surgery, four toe amputations and several other procedures.
Occasionally annoyed by his father's indefatigable cheeriness, Doc's son Mike, 26, recalled demanding at a young age an explanation for his dad's sanguinity. In quick response, Heslin imparted the adage by which he lived: "Every day, you have two options. You can be upset because things are bothering you, or you can look forward to making them better."
And every day, he made things better for those around him. Heslin adored cooking for his family, and worked tirelessly to stay healthy in order to care for them. At Severn, his smile illuminated classrooms, and he is remembered as the rock of his department and the soul and spirit of the school. Both his students and his athletes knew beyond a doubt he cared deeply about them as individuals.
As coach of Severn’s varsity golf and men’s and women’s swim teams for 75 seasons, he recorded more than 100 wins in two sports, yet his athletes’ having fun, developing confidence and challenging themselves were the true victories for Heslin.
Outside the classroom and off the field, Doc was often found caring for the gardens that cover his yard. After Heslin’s passing, a neighbor shared with Mike, “A year ago, my daughter and I were walking by your house. Your dad was getting basil for Margherita pizza from your beautiful garden. He had us smell all of the herbs and taste the mint. I told my husband what a nice neighbor we had, and we will always remember that moment.” Mike explained his father’s remains now rest in the gardens he loved in an urn topped with a sundial.
"He used to call me 'boss,' but it was never that kind of relationship," recalled Severn School foreign language department chair Jean Berard. "It was more of who could tell the worst pun. He would walk up and down the hall and ask us if we needed chocolate that day or pop his head in the door and distract our classes by speaking in other languages the kids didn't know."
A former Severn colleague reminisced about the "crazy-wonderful" Doc's humor – described by Legarde as a dry if not corny wit that revolved around ridiculously silly puns - and passion for his students on a memorial Facebook page dedicated to him. "I always wondered what all the laughter was about when I heard it coming through the wall next to my classroom. Incredibly, it was the sound of the joy of learning Latin with Doc," she said.
That joy stemmed from his passion – passion for his family, passion for his students and passion for the language and culture that were the love of his life – second only to Cindy, of course. Doc studied abroad in Italy in 1975, and returned to his favorite country more than 20 times in the years that followed, largely as the leader of Severn’s Italian exchange program. He enjoyed a trip to Tuscany and Rome with Cindy in June.
“In the Roman culture, [they] believed as long as someone still remembered you or honored you, you’re never completely gone, never completely dead,” Yost explained of the culture his friend so loved. And Doc is not fully gone. Every day, he overlooks the gardens he worked so hard to make beautiful, inviting friends, family and passers-by to smell and taste the herbs.