Msgr. Thomas J. Hartman, who brought a message of interfaith understanding to millions as half of the famous priest and rabbi duo “The God Squad,” died late Tuesday, his sister said.
Hartman, 69, died just after 11:30 p.m. at TownHouse Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Uniondale from complications related to Parkinson’s disease, Sheila Mohrman said.
The mild-mannered, bespectacled Diocese of Rockville Centre priest played straight man to Rabbi Marc Gellman’s wisecracks during a quarter-century of “God Squad” appearances on TV, radio and in print. He announced in 2003 he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s; he had learned a few years earlier that he had the disease.
“He was the most selfless, giving person who ever lived,” Mohrman, of East Marion, said Wednesday. “He was a wonderful, wonderful brother and a selfless, giving person. . . . He was loved by everyone and he had a thousand, million friends. Everyone loved him. Everyone felt he was their best friend.”
Hartman himself, through all the celebrity and accolades, never viewed himself as anything but a messenger for his beloved church.
“I’m a parish priest with an ability in the media,” he once said. “What motivates me in the whole thing is prayer.”
Gellman, in an interview, said he considered Hartman his best friend.
“He was compassionate. He was caring. He was vibrant,” the rabbi said. “He cared about everyone.”
Bishop William Murphy, who leads the diocese, said in a statement: “He touched many lives, healed many hearts and used his considerable gifts to bring people to a deeper sense of God in their lives.”
Bill Ayres, a former priest and longtime friend of Hartman, headed up Telecare, the diocese’s cable TV station, before Hartman took over in 1979. What made him so special, Ayres said, was his skill passing on his faith to others.
“He was able to get the message of the Gospel out to hundreds of thousands of people because of his goodness and also his ability to communicate,” he said.
Though Hartman had reached a certain level of celebrity, what most distinguished him was his work as a priest, Ayres said — visiting someone at 3 a.m., for example, if they needed his help.
“He extended himself to people that were sick, that were dying, that had problems,” he said.
Hartman and Gellman started their program in 1987 on Cablevision, and a decade later moved it to Telecare. The pair mixed serious talk of religion and faith with good-natured jokes, banter and occasional ribbing back and forth. It all served to bridge the gap between faiths by finding common ground.
After “The God Squad” was syndicated, it reached 15 million homes a week nationwide. Hartman and Gellman were dubbed “the Siskel and Ebert of religion,” appeared regularly on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” and traveled the country, speaking at churches, charities and other institutions.
The duo even went on the “Imus in the Morning” radio show. When they asked shock-jock Don Imus to ease up on locker-room humor, he obliged, at least while they were on the air with him. The host would call for a “window of purity” or declare his radio show a “filth-free zone” whenever Hartman and Gellman were guests.
The two co-wrote books, won four Emmy Awards and received a George Foster Peabody Award for an HBO animated special based on their children’s book, “How Do You Spell God?”
Mohrman said her brother had the ability to “captivate a room full of people with such a soft voice.”
“He was brilliant, but he spoke in simple ways for everyone to completely understand and feel at home with,” she said. “Whether he was talking about world hunger or religion or sports, he had such a magnetism and was able to draw people in.”
Hartman saw his work in the media as a way to bring God to a broader audience — even those who didn’t go to church.
With Sal Capanzano, he co-hosted a local radio show called “Religion and Rock,” in which he played rock music and tried to relate it to Christian messages. He also hosted a national radio show, distributed on the ABC Radio Network, dubbed “Journeys Through Rock.”
Shortly after he became head of Telecare in 1979, he said in a Newsday interview, “A lot of the ministry is being with people who are broken, on the fringe of life. . . . That is the vision I try to bring to the station. I’m trying to give a voice to the voiceless.”
Michael Pascucci, a longtime Telecare board member and president of WLNY-TV Channel 55, said Hartman “revolutionized Catholic television with Telecare” and set the station on a path to becoming the “national Catholic channel in the United States.”
He did so by expanding programming and making it more relevant, extending the station’s reach into more homes and helping to raise the money to pay for it all, Pascucci said.
By 2007, Hartman’s deteriorating health took its toll on his activities. He and Gellman filmed their final show of “The God Squad” and Gellman took sole control of a syndicated column the two wrote for Newsday and other newspapers. About the same time, Hartman stepped down as head of Telecare.
He raised $21 million for research into Parkinson’s, giving some of the money to The Thomas Hartman Center for Parkinson’s Research at Stony Brook University, which opened in 2013, Mohrman said. After his brother Gerard died of AIDS in 1995, Hartman raised $6 million for AIDS research.
Pascucci said Hartman helped countless others and could never say “no” to someone in need.
“He was really functioning as the equivalent of about four parish priests,” he said. “He never had a day off.”
Hartman’s earliest years were in Richmond Hill, Queens, the oldest of six children. When he was 9, the family moved to East Williston. An athletic youngster, he dreamed of playing Major League baseball, but he also recognized his limitations as a player.
“When I was 9 years old, I decided I wanted to be a priest or a baseball player,” he told Dan Rather on the “CBS Evening News” in 2000. “When I hit .250 in baseball one year, I said, ‘Hmm, I better become a priest.’ ”
His mother, Sheila Hartman, told Newsday in 2011 that “the religious part became the stronger part, it grabbed him more. And talking was always his forte. That’s why he became a TV person, a radio person, a communicator from the altar.”
He never lost his love of sports and managed to blend it with the priesthood when he served for years as chaplain to the New York Jets. He also spent time as chaplain for the Nassau County Police Department.
Hartman could deliver a blistering 100-mph serve on the tennis court and was equally adept teeing up on the golf course, said Ayres, his longtime tennis partner.
As a boy, Hartman attended St. Aidan’s parish school in Williston Park, followed by St. Pius X preparatory seminary in Uniondale, a high school for aspiring priests.
He graduated from Our Lady of Angels Seminary in 1970 with a master’s of divinity degree and was ordained in 1971. Eight years later he obtained a doctor of ministry degree from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.
His first assignment as a parish priest was at St. James Roman Catholic Church in Seaford, where he shared the rectory with Ayres and other priests.
“I loved parish work,” Hartman told Newsday in 1981. “I loved the ministry of meeting people who had problems, people who thought they were alone.”
By 1979, when Ayres decided to leave the priesthood, the diocesan television station needed a new director. Ayres had a candidate: Hartman, who by then had started his own radio show at Ayres’ urging.
“I just knew he was good,” Ayres said.
At the time, Hartman was considering a position in the diocese’s mission in the Dominican Republic near the Haitian border. Ayres persuaded him to stay on Long Island and take over Telecare. Hartman was well on his way to a pair of dueling careers — a Catholic priest and a TV celebrity for the faithful.
It was a parking-lot conversation he had with Gellman — after the two first met on a News 12 Long Island program — that led to the forging of a unique bond and chemistry that grew before millions of viewers and listeners.
That day’s getting-to-know-you chat became a two-hour conversation about faith, career and life choices. Gellman told Hartman about a job offer he had at a synagogue in Florida. He said he was heading home to telephone his acceptance.
“Tom said, ‘You’re not going to Florida. . . . I had a dream last night, and God said, in the dream, to ‘tell the guy you’re with that I’m not through with him there, where he is.’ ”
Gellman turned down the job.
The next day, he and Hartman launched “The God Squad.”
Visiting will be from 2 to 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Church of St. Aidan in Williston Park, with a Mass of Transferral at 7:30 p.m. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at the church at 11 a.m. Saturday, with burial in Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury.
In addition to his sister, Sheila Mohrman, and mother, Sheila Hartman, of Laguna Woods, California, he is survived by sisters Joanne Peluso of upstate Goshen and Eileen Zraick of Laguna Beach, California; and a brother, John Hartman of Atlanta.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to The Thomas Hartman Center for Parkinson’s Research at Stony Brook University.