When someone walks from Buffalo to Montauk for a cause, he deserves to be heard.
When he does it in search of a long-lost brother, too, he deserves the help of everyone with a heart, which is all of us.
Late Tuesday or early Wednesday morning, Tom Cavanaugh of Albany County will arrive on Long Island. He's been walking 30 miles a day since September 22 to advocate for the civil rights of disabled New Yorkers and the victims of physical abuse. That's a feat for a young man. Cavanaugh is 62.
Stepping onto the Island will be a homecoming for Cavanaugh. He was raised in 1950s Levittown in a household that he describes as rife with domestic violence. What happened in his childhood home splintered the family, he said.
He eventually moved to upstate East Berne and his brother, John, remained on the Island. They've neither spoken nor seen each other in 35 years. Tom's been looking to connect with John ever since. I could hear the pain in Cavanagh's voice when I spoke with him on the phone Friday, and the rhythm of his steps. He was halfway through Yonkers, heading south and east at the time. "Can you tell everyone I'm looking for John -- the one who grew up at Nine Knolls Lane in Levittown?" he asked.
In a world of growing civic apathy, a Tom Cavanaugh commands attention. He became increasingly frustrated with New York State's Justice Center, which he says is badly failing to protect the state's most vulnerable children. Many New Yorkers don't even vote; Cavanaugh strapped on a pair of New Balance sneakers, with an added layer of padding from Dr. Scholl's, he says, and hit the road. He drinks six bottles of Gatorade a day to stay hydrated.
"My legs really cramped the first couple of days," he said. "But I've always kept myself in shape playing soccer and refereeing, so they're feeling pretty good now."
Cavanaugh sleeps in an RV that travels along with him, courtesy of the Jonathan Carey Foundation, which is sponsoring the 600-mile walk. The foundation was established by the parents of a 13-year-old autistic boy who died after being smothered by a state caregiver. His story prompted passage of "Jonathan's Law," giving parents and guardians access to investigative records into the mistreatment of children under state care.
Cavanaugh quit his job and trained for weeks for his walk from one end of the state to other. The trek attracted a lot of media attention upstate, as he plowed through county after county.
"People in cars and trucks honked and gave me thumbs-ups all across upstate after seeing me on TV," he said appreciatively. "They reached out their car windows to hand me bottles of water. I couldn't pay for a meal when I stopped at restaurants. Someone paid for my dinner in Ossining last night."
People's hearts clearly open when they see Cavanaugh coming. The RV following him is adorned with a large banner making it known that he is walking to help protect disabled children. How can anyone disagree with that?
But as Cavanaugh gets closer and closer to his childhood home, he is thinking more and more about his brother John. "I'm told he's still alive. That's all I know," he said sadly. "Hopefully, he'll see this column or see me on TV."
When asked what anyone knowing John Cavanaugh should do, Tom's steady breathing halted: "Tell him I'll be walking right down Hempstead Turnpike. Please ask him if he'll join me."
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.