Holyoke ‘hidden legend’ Thomas Schwab dies at 92

  • The well-known Holyoke lawyer, community leader and musician Thomas Schwab died Jan. 14 at the age of 92. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • THOMAS SCHWAB

  • The well-known Holyoke lawyer, community leader and musician Thomas Schwab, who died on Jan. 14, 2019, at the age of 92. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/18/2020 1:10:38 PM
Modified: 1/18/2020 1:09:41 PM

HOLYOKE — He was designated as a “hidden legend” by the youth-led transformative justice program at Holyoke High School. He was the lawyer that local nonprofits turned to when they needed pro bono help. And he was an active member of the Pioneer Valley music community.

The lawyer, community leader and musician Thomas Schwab — an adopted son of the city of Holyoke, where he retired 35 years ago — died Tuesday night from chronic kidney failure. He was 92.

“I think he lived a life the way that many people like myself would like to follow,” said Schwab’s son Jonathan, a pediatrician at Northampton Area Pediatrics. “He lived a life of helping people, caring for people. He saw places of injustice and tried to make a difference to equalize those injustices he saw.”

After a successful career as a corporate lawyer in Washington, D.C., Schwab moved 35 years ago to Holyoke, where his wife, Lois, had been born and raised. He soon became involved with a wide range of local causes; he provided legal assistance to organizations such as Nueva Esperanza, for example, and was a talented musician who participated in endeavors including the Holyoke Civic Symphony. 

As a member of the Holyoke Public Library board, Schwab helped guide the library through its major renovation — a complicated endeavor that was completed in 2013. Fellow library board member Joan Steiger described Schwab as “one of the very most remarkable human beings I’ve ever known.”

“Here was Tom, an adopted Holyoker, who would take on a major role in this project with heart and soul,” Steiger said. “The fundraising alone was complicated and required a lot of very hard work, and Tom was up to it.”

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1927, Schwab served in the U.S. Navy on the battleship USS Iowa in 1945. He eventually went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1953, and then clerked for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia before beginning his law career. In 1984, he retired as a managing partner with the law firm Wald, Harkrader & Ross.

It was then that the Schwabs moved to Holyoke, where Lois had grown up. The couple wanted to move to the Five College area in large part to be near to its many cultural and musical opportunities, Lois said.

State Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, said that anyone who met Schwab would have never known that he hadn't grown up in Holyoke. He said Schwab adopted the area and worked really hard on issues including social justice and music education, offering his wisdom on complex legal and business issues to help out local nonprofits.

During the Greater Holyoke Council For Human Understanding’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative breakfast Thursday, Vega said that he mentioned Schwab’s passing. He noted that the students in Holyoke High School’s Pa'Lante Restorative Justice program selected Schwab as one of the city’s “hidden legends” — a project meant to update the school’s Hall of Fame to reflect Holyoke’s diversity and history of social activism.

“As we continue to talk about equity, as we continue to bridge the divide between the Latinx and Anglo community — and all communities — I think they’re going to miss somebody with Tom’s experience and Tom’s background,” Vega said.

When first asked about Schwab, though, Vega said it was necessary to speak about his wife, Lois. The two had been married for 63 years.

“She is a kind-hearted person and I think enabled Tom to do the work he needed to do, and wanted to do, and supported him in that,” Vega said.

In a phone interview Thursday, Lois described her husband as a talented musician, a role model who encouraged young people and adults alike, and a brilliant mind who was “a marvel in everything he did.”

As a musician, Schwab’s family said he spent many nights playing violin and viola, and also sang in numerous groups. He was even part of the chorus that sang when Leonard Bernstein’s piece “Mass” debuted at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in 1973.

Lois said the friends of their three children often looked to Schwab for advice and considered him a role model.

“He was an inspiration to kids,” she said. “He encouraged them in musical things, he encouraged them in whatever questions they asked about.”

When asked what she would miss most about her husband, Lois said that there wasn’t just one quality. She said she will miss “everything, his whole being.”

“I’ll miss his wisdom, his kindness, his friendship for others,” Lois said in a phone interview Thursday. “I’ll just miss him.”

Besides Lois, Schwab is survived by his three children, David, Jonathan and Liv Nash, and six grandchildren.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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