Thanks and Giving, Counting Life’s Blessings

Those born and raised in the Tarrytowns who have reached the apex that social security rewards, will remember a young, well-mannered, handsome man named Tom Hales.

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Alica and Tom Hales. The former CEO of Union State bank and Tarrytown native received a double lung transplant one year ago.

Born in 1936 at the Tarrytown Hospital on Wood Court, his parents were well-known and liked in the community. His Dad was a mailman and his Mom owned Flockharts, a dry goods store on Main Street. He attended local schools and graduated from Washington Irving High School in 1954. "W.I. was as good as any prep school in the country. My classmates went to Harvard, Brown, Annapolis, Smith and other great schools," he said during a recent interview at his comfortable home. "Larry Hines, a History teacher, and Milo Cushman, a great guidance counselor, saw to it that we all got into excellent schools," he added. "As for me, I always wanted to be a CEO. I wanted to run a business." He graduated cum laude from Iona College in 1958 with an Accounting degree. From there he went on to become a CPA and years later received his Masters Degree from Pace University.

In the work place, he did a brief stint at Price Waterhouse and then Standard Coating Products before opening his own accounting business. He had two offices, one in Ossining and another in the Lyceum Building in Tarrytown. It was during this time that he was introduced to a very wealthy family in Massachusetts. He later became the CEO of their company and was appointed to its Board of Directors as well. The year was 1980 and, at the same time, Union State Bank was getting into financial trouble in Rockland County. "I had bought 1000 shares of their stock and watched the situation with the Bank very closely. I always had a desire to be in the banking business," Hales said. In 1981 that desire became a reality as Tom Hales became USB’s new CEO. At the time the Bank had two branches, one in Nanuet and the other in Monsey. As far as Hales was concerned, the position was a perfect fit. "I was a CPA, the numbers were important and I knew what they meant. Secondly, you could do almost anything you wanted with regard to charities and service to community. It was an accepted thing because that was part of your job as a banker," he added. That sense of community service for the greater good became a recurring theme throughout his years at the helm of USB.

At the beginning it became apparent that the stars and circumstances were aligned in his favor. In the early 1980’s, the Trade Commission had asked the Bank of New York to divest itself of branches they had acquired in Rockland and Orange Counties. "We were fortunate enough to be the successful bidder and we bought four additional branches in New City, Haverstraw, West Haverstraw and Spring Valley." With the increased responsibility of operating and increasing profitability, Hales hired excellent bank officers, one of whom he had delivered newspapers with as a young boy, Bob Picarelli. "Bob built the loan department as quickly as I could build the front office and we became known as a bank that could put a deal together. We grew so rapidly that we almost ran out of capital and I found myself in desperate need of two million dollars to be exact." A loan from another bank and the opportunity for shareholders to purchase more USB stock provided the capital the Bank needed. What transpired over the next 26 years is a success story of staggering proportions, succinctly stated by the CEO himself. "When we began the bank in 1981, we had twenty-three million dollars in assets. When we sold USB in 2007 to Key Bank, we had amassed over three billion dollars in assets," he said.

If success is bittersweet, Tom Hales can attest to both sensations. The 72-year old CEO who, by his own admission, never intended to retire, had an insidious illness that nearly erased a life so well-lived. In 1996 Tom Hales contracted pulmonary fibrosis, a condition that causes scarring of the lungs and for which there is no known cure, except lung transplants. When the shortness of breath first occurred, Hales attributed it to lack of exercise and being overweight. His doctor at the time knew better but chose not to share the diagnosis with his patient who had the disease in both lungs. "After making the medical rounds I finally found out in 2004," he said. What he found out then was that pulmonary fibrosis affects over 200,000 Americans and that 40,000 people die from it every year. "Laurance Rockefeller had the disease and he lived to be 94 years old. He was thin and he exercised," Hales added. That was some consolation but Tom Hales saw a rapid decline in his own ability to breathe without the aid of oxygen. At first he fought taking it but he soon realized that it was to become a staple if he was to live.

His advanced age and the fact that both of his lungs were affected made him the perfect candidate for rejection by multiple physicians and medical centers. "They kind of insinuated that I should just prepare to die." He reached out to Keith Safian, the CEO of Phelps Memorial Hospital. Safian referred him to the Pinnacle Group, an organization that specializes in medical advocacy. The group scoured the United States for a physician and hospital willing and capable to perform a double lung transplant. That physician was Dr. Bartley Griffith at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "He asked me if I was interested in life. Then he told me he would do the operation and that I would be fine if I did exactly what he told me to do," Hales said. The operation was performed on November 1, 2007 (All Saints’ Day) and two days later Tom Hales was up and walking as part of his recuperation program. "At the time of the operation I was the oldest guy in the United States to have had the operation," he said smiling. As with all records, they exist to be broken and within the past year a 74-year old man became the oldest recipient of a double lung transplant.

The aftercare that Tom Hales received from Dr. Aldo Iacona at the Maryland Medical Center will be fondly remembered for the remainder of his life. "I cannot say enough about the hospital, the doctors, my friends, colleagues at work and my family," he said with an emotional voice. "I had so many people praying for me."

One year later and Tom Hales plans to have this Thanksgiving with his wife, six children and beloved grandchildren. He’s far from retired and intends on becoming an activist for organ donation by promoting changes in existing laws. In addition, he will devote his time to strengthening the vocation opportunities for the Catholic Church. "I never thought I’d get here. I was pretty sure I’d never make it. What I learned, with God’s support, is to never give up." For him there are still blessings to count and people to help. It’s in his makeup to seize opportunities and make things happen for the better.

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