Irish Wake for a Warrior Against Drugs

By on October 2, 2017

by Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL

This past Sunday a memorial service and an Irish wake were held for a hero and a warrior who fought all his life to make things safer for your family, my family, and his family. Like a lot of warriors, Tom “Mac” McNamara didn’t like to talk about what he had done, or what he was doing. The war he fought was not in some distant country. It was right in our neighborhoods.

I know his story because I knew him —  as best I could —  for 45 years. Tom McNamara was my dear and  longest-standing friend. He was the godfather to my elder daughter. I introduced him to his wife of 37 years. We weren’t always in contact, but we were always connected.

Fighting an Epidemic

This Sunday’s New York Times carried an editorial urging an “Eight Step Program” to eliminate the stigma of drug addiction and promote treatment. Mac never condemned the people who used drugs: His  hyper-intelligence and anger were directed at the people who sold the poison, and at the pain it spread. His memorial service was held at John A. Logan College in Carterville, IL, where this past April 1,000 people gathered to attend this year’s iteration of a two-day drug awareness conference he founded in 2004.

Following Construction Forum STL’s program “Opioids, A Building Epidemic” last year, several industry organizations have continued to follow up. Recently, a number of us, including representatives of the Laborers, Carpenters, Construction Forum STL, and the St. Louis-based American Society of Concrete Contractors met with the faculty of the emergency medicine department at Washington University School of Medicine. Topic of the discussion: How to help the public and young medical professionals learn to recognize addiction as a disease, in order to provide the addicted with the treatment they need to return to work and to their families.

AG’s Go-To Guy

Over 100 law enforcement officers walked in procession behind a piper at the memorial service. Illinois’ chief law enforcer, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, talked of how Mac was her go-to guy in drafting and promoting legislation on regulation of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine sales. She said that at a press conference celebrating Illinois’ law he clued her into the then-new imports of synthetic drug “bath salts”.

U.S. Congressman Mike Bost talked of how when he was a state legislator Mac urgently requested a meeting. There’s something coming, Mac told Bost, that will cause mothers to abandon their children in order to get it. It’s something that can be made in any kitchen. That something, of course, was meth.

The Dark Side

Over 40 years, Mac instructed thousands of law enforcement officers, health professionals, others on the drug epidemic. He wrote articles, and made appearances, both in person and in the media all over the state of Illinois. But in all of that time he never blew his own horn about his research and teaching work or spoke publicly of his policing efforts against drugs, except once.

He was asked to present in 2011 on the dark side of drug culture at the conference he had founded. Reluctantly, he did so. The Carbondale newspaper, The Southern Illinoisan, wrote this account.

The Chicago south side native who attended school in Carbondale before eventually joining the Carbondale Police Department, got involved with the Southern Illinois Enforcement Group. That led to the Illinois State Police where McNamara worked as an undercover narcotics officer.

“They (state police) found out that I make a good bad guy,” McNamara said.

He and another undercover officer, a woman police sergeant, were among 10 undercover agents who infiltrated and lived with noted motorcycle gangs during a 14-month stretch that eventually helped law enforcement agencies break a narcotic chain and the crimes associated with it, stretching from Chicago to Memphis, Tenn.

It was an experience that McNamara said he would, “not recommend to anyone,” as he noted harrowing experiences of purchasing machine guns, massive amounts of explosives and women.”Women are property. They are something to use, so you sell them,” he said about frequenting strip joints owned by biker clubs.

He narrowly escaped with his life, certain he was going to be shot to death at one point during the operation.

Tom McNamara was recognized in the Congressional Record and by numerous state and federal agencies for this and other undercover activities. At the memorial service, in a display case, next to a copy of the Record article, his biker “colors” were displayed.

Mac told me during the time he was undercover that he was scared, as he should have been. But, as Congressman Mike Bost said at the memorial, Mac never let the underside of life that he saw harden him.

One time when Tom and his then-very-young daughter Rachel (who he called “Rocky”) were riding past Menard State Penitentiary, she recalled at the memorial,  she asked him what it was like for the prisoners inside.

“Do they get to bring their lambies (blankets) with them?,” she asked him.

“Honey, Mac told her, “If someone had given them a lambie, they probably wouldn’t be there.”

Mac knew that in fighting drugs, law enforcement can only do so much. We must all do our part as well. I remember calling Mac to tell him that my daughter, his goddaughter, was addicted to opioids and to ask for advice. He told me what to expect. Lily did the work and is recovering and doing well. That’s the kind of story Mac wanted to hear more often.

Once a Warrior…

I met Mac when I was young police reporter in Carbondale in 1972. He was right out of school working for the Carbondale PD, living in a city-owned, condemned house replete with pinball machines and the stuffed head of “Zeke” — a buffalo he had once owned.

Tom hosted legendary parties, with cops, reporters, priests, and others in attendance, He hosted my 21st birthday party. I remember a telephone line worker nicknamed “Spike” made tortillas and Tom and I left the party at 2 a.m. to find someplace quiet to drink. (I told that story at the memorial and “Spike’s” daughters came up to me afterwards. One still has the tortilla press.)

A few years later, Tom saw his wife-to-be Judy working at my office and asked for an introduction. After a bumpy first blind date he asked for a second chance on Valentine’s day. They had just finished a lovely dinner in the Delmar Loop and were headed to the car, as Judy told it Sunday, when, “He picked me up, threw me in the back seat and slammed the door.”  She looked out the window and saw Mac facing three large men, one with a knife, who wanted their valuables.

Mac had left his gun under the front seat of the car because he knew Judy didn’t like guns. Mac looked at the three guys, Judy said, “and he said, ‘Come and get it.’ And then he smiled at them.” The trio, totally befuddled at this obviously deranged person, faded into the night.

Last year, Judy said, Mac, who had been suffering horribly from multiple health issues, suggested to Judy that they go to Walmart for milk. She jumped at the chance to get him out of the house. In the store they saw a young father, (“a huge guy”) obviously high on something, screaming at two young kids. The mother was elsewhere in the store. Suddenly the father backhanded the three-year-old girl across the mouth.

While everyone else stood gobsmacked, Mac immediately hobbled over on his cane and commanded, “Stand down!” to the father.

“What are you going to do about it?, ” the father asked.

Judy recalled that Mac said slowly, “Well, first I’m going to try beat you to death with my cane. And then, when I’m down on ground, you’re going to see more cops than you’ve ever seen in your life.”

“And then,” she said,  “he smiled”.  

The man stood down.

“Some things never change,” she said. “He was a warrior. Once a warrior, always a warrior.”

As I did Sunday, I’ll think of what Judy said when I pour a glass of Jameson Redbreast and toast his memory.

Here’s to warriors, indeed.

Mac was intimidating to low lifes, but kids and dogs always knew he was a softy. Donations may be sent to the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department-Canine Unit, 404 N Van Buren St, Marion, IL 62959. Checks must include in the subject line, Mac’s K9 Fund. This unit is in need of a new police dog (K9).
Donations are also being sent to Centerstone, 3111 Williamson County Pkwy, Marion, IL 62959. This is a not-for-profit health provider that treats people for substance abuse regardless of ability to pay.


About Tom Finan

One Comment

  1. Mike Kelly

    10/04/2017 at 12:15 PM

    thanks for this post, Tom – we need more Irish (and other) Warriors for the Good – I feel the call myself!