In the Wantagh soccer community, Tom O’Leary walked in rarefied air.
He was a humble father of three who never wanted anything to be about him. But when it came to high school soccer, his success spoke for itself.
“Mr. O’Leary’s a legend,” said Tommy Liguori, current Wantagh High School boys varsity soccer coach.
O’Leary, who coached boys varsity soccer at Wantagh High School for 34 years and won state titles in 1992 and 1993, died on June 12 at his home in Huntington, his family said. He was 75.
“He was old-school,” said Liguori, who played on both state championship teams. “He didn’t demand respect. But the way he carried himself, he got respect.”
O’Leary also taught driver’s education at Wantagh High School and was an assistant coach on the varsity boys lacrosse team. He played soccer at Island Trees High School in the 1960s and went on to play at Nassau Community College and Long Island University. He ran the Long Island Marathon multiple times in the 1980s, his family said.
“The kids related to him,” said Fran Nocella, former athletic director at Wantagh High School. “There’s an old saying in education: ‘Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ Well, no one would ever question how much Tom cared because it was so obvious.”
O’Leary’s 34-year teaching career, spent in the physical education department at Wantagh Middle School, allowed him constant opportunities to stretch his legs. When soccer practice started, O’Leary couldn’t wait to warm up with his team.
“He got to go out every day and spend time with the kids,” said his son Tom O’Leary Jr. of California. “He got to go out in the field, walk around, be physically active. A lot of times, he used to bring me to practice with him, and he was partaking in jogging and warming up with the kids. I think he just liked the overall interaction with the players and the kids that were in his gym class.”
Tom O'Leary also liked interacting with his co-workers, taking the younger ones under his wing with ease.
“I couldn’t have had a better role model to look up to,” said John Cuiffo of West Islip, a longtime friend who coached soccer and lacrosse with Tom O’Leary. “We helped each other on the soccer field. It was just a great partnership.”
Cuiffo continued: “He was dedicated and passionate. He was very humble, and it was always kids first with him. That’s what I learned from him the most. It wasn’t about him or the coaching staff. It was about the kids.”
Born on Jan. 18, 1947, in Astoria, Queens, O’Leary grew up in Levittown. He moved to Huntington in 1974 and raised three children with his wife of 48 years, Robin, who died in 2018.
"He was a genuine human being,” O’Leary Jr. said. “He never really had anything bad to say about anybody. He’d bite his tongue if he didn’t like the company that was around him. He always had a story, always had advice. You could ask him about anything you could think of, whether it be plumbing or roofing or landscaping.”
Tom O’Leary spent the past 15 years as a volunteer EMT for the Huntington Community First Aid Squad. He won six major awards, including Top Responder of the Year three times as well as Driver of the Year, EMS Worker of the Year, and Basic Life Support Provider of the Year, his family said.
O’Leary was scheduled to volunteer twice a week, but always kept his EMT radio on and often worked four or five times a week, O’Leary Jr. said.
“He knew the roads on Long Island like the back of his hand,” O’Leary Jr. said. “It’s just something that he enjoyed doing, not only helping people, but he knew the shortcuts and how to get there.”
Leading people, whether as a coach on the soccer field, a teacher in the gym, or out in the field as an EMT, was just part of the elder O’Leary’s makeup.
“I don’t think he ever stopped being a coach at any point,” O’Leary Jr. said. “I just think he took that and crossed it over to other aspects of his life.”
In addition to his son, Tom O’Leary is survived by daughter Lauren O’Leary of Connecticut, son Mike O’Leary of Huntington, and two grandsons.
A wake will be held Friday from 2-4 p.m. and from 7-9 p.m. at M.A. Connell Funeral Home in Huntington Station. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10:15 a.m. Saturday at the Church of St. Patrick in Huntington.