Honoring a hero’s cause

Hundreds support Tommy Maher's mission to spread kindness

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At first, Mary Jo Von Tillow wasn’t sure what to think of South Hempstead resident Tommy Maher. In November 2017, Maher traveled to Las Vegas to do good deeds in honor of Von Tillow’s late husband, Kurt Von Tillow, and the 57 other people killed in the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting. He paid for strangers’ meals and gave them roses, and after each kind act, he gave the recipient a bracelet engraved with a victim’s name.

Von Tillow, a Californian, heard of Maher’s actions through people in Las Vegas. “I was very suspicious of that,” she said. “Was he doing it for political reasons? Was he doing it for money? I said I have to figure out who this guy is.”

Within 10 minutes of meeting Maher over lunch in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, Von Tillow said, she knew his intentions were genuine.

On Feb. 8, more than 200 people, decked out in cowboy boots and sporting Western-style belt buckles, filled O’Connell Gardens in Ocean-side to honor Maher’s work and help him continue it. “I’m not used to being on the receiving end of it to this capacity,” he said.

“This guy is the real deal,” Von Tillow said. “Meeting Tommy Maher and all that comes with Tommy Maher has been magnificent.”

Maher didn’t stop doing good deeds in Las Vegas. He has used his own money to drive to communities devastated by mass shootings to spread kindness, including Parkland, Fla., after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and Pittsburgh, after the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, both in 2018.

The Country for a Cause fundraiser was attended by Long Islanders and the family members of Route 91 victims, some of whom spoke of how Maher’s work helped them heal. At the fundraiser, about 20 people knew someone who was killed at the Route 91 shooting, according to event organizer Jessica Eckels.

“There were people messaging me on Facebook who I have obviously never met before, asking, ‘Could I buy a ticket?’” said Eckels, a Baldwinite and a friend of Maher’s. “It’s just been so unbelievable.”

Maher, 52, a retired New York City sanitation worker, was presented with citations by numerous elected officials, including County Legislator Debra Mulé, who said he proved that there is good in the world. Attendees also danced to country music played by a live band.

Suzanne Coletta-Knab, of Rockville Centre, who escaped the Route 91 Harvest Festival, said the event was fantastic.

She recalled six days after the shooting, when Maher called her as she was having a panic attack. “He called me to tell me what he had planned to do for Honor 58,” Coletta-Knab said, referring to the name of Maher’s kindness campaign.

Coletta-Knab noted the Californians and Canadians at the fundraiser who traveled far to support Maher. “It was actually unbelievable that one guy did this,” she said. “Tommy started this, and it makes you feel a little bit better.”

Eckels said she wanted to hold a fundraiser so Maher could continue traveling the country and doing his work. “I think a lot of people take for granted, or don’t think, that one little thing can change someone’s day,” she said. “It can be anything . . . and that’s what he’s showed all these people today.” When she first contacted Maher about the fundraiser, he was tired from all the travel and considered stopping. But seeing all the people at the event, he said, motivated him to return to the road. “I’m ready now,” he said.

Attendees also thanked Maher’s wife, Cindy, for supporting him in his endeavor. “She does so much without even doing anything by letting him go all over the country and spend money out of their own pockets,” Eckels said.

Looking to help even more people, Maher said he planned to drive to Sebring, Fla., where a gunman killed five women at a bank on Jan. 23. “A lot of people didn’t even hear about this one,” he said. “It was just on the news for a day.”

The victims, he said, deserve to be more than a mention in the 24-hour news cycle. “It’s a human life that meant something to a lot of people,” he said. “It’s not right for everyone to forget about them.”

Ben Strack contributed to this story.