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Thomas Wickham of Lee, former TWA ‘pilot of the year’

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By Thursday, Jan 4, 2018 Obituaries

Thomas James Wickham of Lee passed away peacefully at home Jan. 3 after a brief illness, surrounded by his loving family.

Thomas Wickham

Tom was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a second-generation Irish-immigrant family. His grandfather was a Brooklyn police officer, which gave Tom his initial interest in the military. His fondest childhood memories were of his aunt Mamie, who instilled a love of reading, history and baseball in young Tommy. Together they spent many a Sunday afternoon watching the old Brooklyn Dodgers play at Ebbets Field. His parents, James and Marjorie (Carroll) Wickham of Lee, were proud of their only son, who graduated from Lee High School in 1947. They encouraged his early love of planes by allowing him to spend the 50 cents per hour he made washing dishes to take flying lessons in a Piper Cub at the old Great Barrington airport. Tom was always proud to say he earned his pilot’s license before his driver’s license.

Those summer afternoons flying over the Berkshire Mountains led to his enrollment on a full scholarship to the Pennsylvania Military Academy in 1947 and, in 1949, enlistment in the U.S. Navy. He received his designation as a naval aviator in 1951, ultimately achieving the rank of lieutenant junior grade. He was assigned to squadron VS-931 in the Korean War, where he hunted for enemy submarines off the Pacific-based carriers USS Sicily and USS Badoeng Straight. Tom, who called carrier aviation “the most wonderful type of flying there is,” had the distinction of making the 23,000th landing aboard the aircraft carrier Bataan in the Pacific during the war. For his Navy service during the war, Tom earned the Naval Battle Star and a United Nations Medal.

In 1953, Tom left the Navy and embarked on a 36-year career with TWA (which the family jokingly referred to as Thomas Wickham Airlines). He made captain in 1959, flew the media “chase” plane for Gerald Ford’s presidential run in 1976 and, in 1984, was named the company’s “Pilot of the Year” for skillfully averting the crash of his fully-loaded 747 while experiencing a mechanical failure flying from New York’s JFK to Rome. His flying career encompassed over 12 different private, military and commercial aircraft. His family never tired of hearing him discuss his piloting “adventures” and all have happy memories of flying as guests of the captain on many a domestic and international flight over the years.

In 1954, Tom married the love of his life, Joan (Thompson) Wickham of Lee. They settled and raised their family on Long Island before relocating permanently back to Lee in his retirement years. In addition to flying, Tom loved everything about space and science fiction; he actually applied to NASA’s astronaut program but was declined due to his large family. Tom never met a roller coaster he didn’t want to ride and had the distinction of being a four-day champion on “Jeopardy!” in the 1970s. Tom was invited back to the show for a second appearance in the 1980s for its Tournament of Champions, where he earned enough prize money to start a college fund for his first-born grandchild. Tom loved a dry vodka martini, shrimp cocktail and steak on the grill. In his retirement, he enjoyed spending winters in Florida and summers in Lee, visiting with family, doing his crossword puzzles, watching the Red Sox, puttering in his flower garden and golfing as much as possible. One of Tom’s prized possessions was a plaque commemorating his hole in one, achieved February 16, 2014, on the 16th hole at the King’s Gate golf course in Port Charlotte, Florida.

Tom was predeceased by both his parents as well as his sister, Susan (Wickham) Scolforo, and nephew Leo Scolforo, both of Virginia. He is survived by his beloved wife of 63 years, Joan; his daughter Barbara and husband Peter Brand of North Port, Florida; son James and wife Bonnalyn Wickham of Lee; daughter Patricia and husband Daniel Collins of Thornton, Colorado; son Thomas Wickham of Lee; daughter Pamela Wickham of Waltham; and daughter Laura and husband Robert Lohbauer of Lee. He also leaves behind his cherished grandchildren Allissa Wickham of Queens, New York, Nathan Wickham of Brookline, Ariel, Caroline and Christian Collins of Thornton, Colorado, Alexandra and Kayla Wickham of Lee, and Emma and Matthew Lohbauer of Lee; his nephew Mark and Matthew Scolforo of Pennsylvania; and Angela Scolforo of Virginia.

Tom and his family had multiple end-of-life discussions during his brief illness and are grateful for the medical and palliative care he received from Dr. DeLeo and the incredible nursing staff at BMC oncology; the outstanding care provided by Dr. Albert, Nadine Abderhalden, Erica Almeida and the caring staff of HospiceCare in the Berkshires and the supportive team at Theory Wellness in Great Barrington.

Funeral services will be private for the family, followed by interment at Fairview Cemetery in Lee at a date to be determined. Tom suggested those wishing to remember him consider making a donation to the Marjorie Wickham Scholarship Fund at Lee High School or to the Lee Library to support its summer reading program for children. Donations can be sent c/o of Kelly Funeral Home, 3 Main St., Lee, MA 01238. To send a donation, leave a message of condolence or share pictures, visit www.kellyfuneralhome.net.

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