Congregation honors a pilot it never knew

Crash: A Ferndale church pays tribute to a man killed as he maneuvered his plane away from its community's homes.

October 04, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

The wreckage was shown repeatedly on television news programs the day Thomas F. Lennon's small cargo plane crashed into a driveway in Ferndale, narrowly missing homes and people setting out for their morning commute.

Amid the news accounts of the crash May 14, one comment on CNN weighed on the mind of the Rev. Susan Duchesneau, whose church is about a block from the crash site. "Thankfully, just one person was killed," she remembered hearing.

"They said it as if, `Well, it could have been worse,' and just seemed to shrug off his death," she said yesterday at a memorial dedication to Lennon at her church, the United Methodist Church of Ferndale. "But that life was very important. You can't just shrug it off. This community owes a lot to him."

Yesterday, about 100 congregation members joined to honor a man they never knew, but one they believe maneuvered his plane to cause the least amount of harm. Lennon's family members from New Jersey sat in three reserved pews during the service and afterward dedicated two wooden benches in his name as a token of their thanks.

The benches, affixed with plaques that read in loving memory of Lennon, "a gentle giant," dubbed so for his imposing 6-foot-7-inch frame and mild manner, symbolize the connection between the congregation and the pilot.

"To tell you the truth, when Tommy died, the pastor was the only one who seemed to recognize his life," said Barbara Ward, Lennon's mother, who attended service at the church the Sunday after the crash, where prayers were said for her son. "To others, he was just this person."

Moved by the outpouring of support, Ward said she wanted to offer something in return.

"We knew we wanted a memorial somewhere, and we just knew this is the fitting place," Ward said.

After an hourlong service, parishioners filed into the garden for the dedication of the benches, taking time to shake hands with Lennon's widow, parents and siblings. Some even joined the family for lunch.

"One woman just came up to us to say, `I didn't know him, but I'll never forget him,'" said Tom Ward, Lennon's stepfather. "That means a lot."

Duchesneau said the church is known for adopting others into its small community.

"This church is really like a great big family," she said. "We really believe if anything happens in our community, it happens to us."

On the day of the crash, Lennon, 34, was flying a twin-engine turboprop plane descending toward Baltimore-Washington International Airport, just a few miles from Ferndale.

After the plane crashed, onlookers immediately hailed Lennon as a hero, saying he deftly avoided a disaster by steering clear of homes and an elementary school.

The crash site was covered in wreckage from the Mitsubishi MU-2B plane operated by Epps Air Service Inc. of Atlanta.

The cause of the crash is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Lennon was making night flights carrying loads such as the canceled checks and financial documents he was delivering that morning from Philadelphia to the Baltimore branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va.

It was not his dream job, but it kept him in the skies; flying was his passion. After graduating from college, Lennon served in the Navy and later began working for Epps in Lansing, Mich., training to become a pilot.

The youngest of four children and the only boy, Lennon was "spoiled rotten" by his siblings and parents, who helped support him through school, the siblings said.

"He was always the baby. During school he was working so hard, but he really had nothing," said his eldest sister Ginny Kurtz of Burlington, N.J. "So we'd always buy him jackets and coats for Christmas and stick a little money in the pockets."

One of Lennon's sisters, Barbara Marshall of Chatham, N.J., summed it up this way: "He always had, like, five mothers."

Once Lennon was licensed, he fulfilled his ambitions by becoming a pilot for U.S. Airways. But in the company's post-Sept. 11, 2001, layoffs, Lennon returned to work for Epps.

Although he didn't have children, he was the favorite uncle of his six nieces and nephews, said family members. Awed by his height, the kids would "climb" Uncle Tommy.

"He was a wonderful guy, every day of his life," Marshall said. "We know that the kind of person he is, he probably worked so hard not to hurt anyone."

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