This month’s MotionWorks Physical Therapy Unsung Hometown Hero is Tom Jensen from Neenah. Tom has made the most of the opportunities he has been afforded in life as a teacher and high school cross country coach at Neenah High School, while taking the time to give back and serve others even in his retirement. In the fall of 1995, Tom gathered a group of running friends and coaches to embark on a project he had always envisioned as a high school cross country coach- the Neenah Summer Fun Run.
Tom Jensen was born into a family of three boys and one girl, the son of an immigrant from Denmark who was proud to become an American citizen, naming his boys the all-American monikers Bob, Mike, and Tom. His family was very poor, but this did not stop Tom from dreaming of attending college. He feels indebted to his older brother who stayed in Ripon to care for and support his mother, so Tom could chase his dreams of becoming a teacher. He describes his mother as a saint, who worked very hard after his father passed away from a heart attack on the very same day his baby sister was born, to care for her young family of five by herself.
Tom grew up in Ripon and recalls fondly all of the extra-curricular activities he enjoyed in high school, including football, basketball, baseball, tennis, band, drums, chorus, and the senior class play. He went on to attend college at the University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point with a major in Biology and a minor in American History. He later obtained his Master’s Degree in American History while teaching. Tom took his first teaching position at Dodgeville, Wisconsin, and 7 years later took a position at Neenah High School to be closer to his family. As part of his job in the social studies department, Tom also was assigned to be the cross country coach. “I didn’t even know what cross country was when I took the job,” Tom says with a chuckle. “The kids come up to me as adults and say I did so much for them, but really they changed and saved my life. Too much of the time, coaches are given the credit for influencing their athletes lives, but really their life is changed by the athletes they’re working with.”
His parents were smokers and lived a very sedentary lifestyle. Tom says his smoking days were over after his cross country runners discovered him and another coach smoking behind the bus after a meet. He began running and biking, and in 1978, completed the first of his 30 American Birkebeiner ski races. He lost weight, felt good, and wasn’t smoking anymore, all thanks to the influence of his students, who respected him for the positive changes he had made in his life. He was talked into running longer distances by his friends, and began competing in marathons, proudly completing his first Boston marathon in 1989. “I remember turning the corner on Boylston Street and seeing the finish line,” Tom relays. “I was so excited I was hyperventilating. I had to stop and catch my breath.” He also ran in the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996.
Tom married the love of his life, Virginia, in 1960; they celebrated their 60th anniversary this year. He notes that their three children are a major highlight of his life, seeing what they have accomplished and their passion for running and staying active.
After 27 years of teaching and head coaching cross country and assistant coaching the tennis and track teams at Neenah High School, Tom retired. To fill his newly earned free time, Tom responded to an ad he saw in the newspaper. Thedacare was looking for volunteers to visit patients in their home hospice program. There is always a shortage of male volunteers to visit patients, so he still takes a couple of hours a week to visit and give respite to the primary care giver. “I’ve made friend with families and I’ve learned that dying isn’t as difficult as I thought," says Tom. “I’ve gotten so much out of it; I’ve learned a lot.”
Another project begun in his retirement, the Neenah Summer Fun Run, has grown exponentially in popularity and participation over the past 25 years. His team of volunteer runners and coaches devised a series of 5 nights of runs for kids ages 0-14 each summer at Memorial Park in Neenah. It was critical that the cost would be free, so all children could participate. Over the years, the fun run has collected a bevy of sponsors from the Neenah community, and even today, 5 of the original 7 volunteers at the very first meeting in 1995 are still volunteering at the runs. The first run began in the summer of 1996, with 44 kids attending the first night. Over the years, the fun run has exploded in popularity with as many as 700 kids participating in one night of the 5-night fun run series. Kids who complete two races a summer receive a uniquely designed Neenah Summer Fun Run T-shirt, while the runners who complete all 5 runs receive a medal. All young participants receive participation ribbons for completing their 400 to 800 meter distance, while older participants compete for place finishing ribbons for the 800m and 1600m distances. All of the kids enjoy the post-race smorgasbord of pizza, fruit, and Dairy Queen ice cream bars and Great Harvest cookies.
Tom credits the generosity of community sponsors (25 sponsors this year), administration assistance by Neenah Park & Rec, and the most dedicated volunteers for the continued success of the Neenah Summer Fun Run. This year, despite the challenges of the coronavirus, the 25th anniversary was celebrated by individual families doing virtual runs; 400 kids in the Neenah community still received their cherished fun run T-shirt as a reward for completing their races. “Things just clicked, we got lucky, and we made some great decisions,” are the reasons Tom gives for the continued success of his little retirement project started 25 years ago. Although he has handed over sponsorship duties to a volunteer on the Neenah Park & Rec Commission, Tom still does just about everything for the Neenah Summer Fun Run, from coordinating dozens of volunteers, arranging meetings, and organizing post-run food items, while other trusted volunteers provide extensive assistance with printing, graphic design for T-shirts and posters, and thank you photos for sponsors.
While advocating for families in the community to be active, Tom hasn’t forgotten his own personal commitment to health and wellness. A recent cancer diagnosis has given Tom a lot of motivation to stay active. Walking the dog for 4 miles every day. Bike rides around Lake Winnebago and Poygan throughout the summer. Running 5 miles a day. “I don’t take a day off,” Tom says. His advice to our readers is simple: “Never stop running. Never. If you do, it’s going to be harder to get going again. Speed isn’t important. Just get out there.”
MotionWorks Physical Therapy thanks Michelle Schneider of Patooties Photography of Neenah for the fantastic photos generously provided for the MotionWorks Unsung Hometown Hero series.