It was spring of 1948 that a husband and wife along with their little boy were traveling by train from the northeast to the southwestern part of the United States. The mother was pregnant with her second son and the family’s trip had nothing to do with a family vacation. The wife had been diagnosed with Tuberculosis, a death sentence for many of its victims in that time. A new drug called streptomycin offered hope for some people with Tuberculosis, and this little family was in need of a large dose of optimism.
John had relatives in Albuquerque, but he really didn’t know them that well. It would be understandable if his wife Sarah was more than a little apprehensive, because she didn’t know them at all. To little John, a toddler, it must have been a mystery trip, as his parents tried to keep him entertained with his favorite books and toys. In the 40’s when tragedy struck a family it was relatives and friends who were the main support system, as there were few government programs that offered assistance.
John was a turbine mechanic for Westinghouse in Philadelphia and was able to switch to a Westinghouse plant in New Mexico, continuing the same job. Sarah was able to receive the best medical treatment the family could acquire. This meant staying in Sanitariums and being treated by specialists in the field. While Sarah was being cared for, John’s relatives took care of little John; otherwise his father would not have been able to work without paying somebody to take care of his son. In the middle of all their problems a miracle occurred: on August 23, 1948 Sarah give birth to a healthy baby boy named Thomas Crego. Unfortunately for this family miracles were in short supply that season, and doctors told John and Sarah that the Tuberculosis in her lungs failed to respond to treatment. The Cregos returned to their home in South Philly where John got his old job back and his mother and aunts could care for Sarah and the two boys.
I asked Tom about his earliest memories. He said, “You don’t really have many recollections before the age of four, but my mom was in sanitariums a lot; Homburg and Bethlehem Pennsylvania were two places I remember. My grandmother and her sister, on my father’s side of the family, took care of mom and raised me and my brother John. He was a lot more than a brother to me; he was my best friend in the whole world. He always looked out for me. I constantly tagged after my brother and his buddies; I was smaller than they were, but always wanted to fit in.” Growing up in a city myself, kids don’t want their little brothers hanging around. Apparently in this situation, John and his friends realized it was important to make an exception.
I was curious how Tom first got involved in boxing and he responded, “I used to listen to the fights on radio and eventually on TV with my uncle Tommy and sometimes with my dad. My brother and his friend Chuck Hasson also liked to follow the fights.” When he mentioned Chuck Hasson my mouth fell open, because I had a friend by the same name. I never was in Philadelphia in my life, so it must have been a coincidence. It turned out to be the very same person; I first met Chuck Hasson about ten years ago at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY. Chuck is a tough guy but also a boxing historian and an excellent writer.
I was curious about Tommy’s first experience with the gloves on. He was quick to respond, “I remember it like it was yesterday. It was in Chuck’s backyard on 22nd street. I put my hands up and he said throw a punch and I threw a jab. He threw a one-two and I landed in a rose bush. His grandmother came out the window and said ‘Chucky, you leave that little boy alone.’” That proved to be Tom Crego’s only loss and coincidently his only fight. Jubilant over his quick KO, Kid Chucky would continue his boxing career at the Rose Bush venue on 22nd street. Hasson would have gone on to become a contender, but the boxing commission wouldn’t allow him to bring a rose bush into an actual boxing ring.
“One day my brother John, Chuck Hasson, Ronnie Summa, Stosh Zona and Marty McKenna all got on ‘The L’ (an above ground subway) and went to Passyunk Avenue in South Philly . The gym was called Passyunk boxing gym. The first floor was a bar; there was a pool hall on the second floor and the gym on the third floor. Going up the stairs was like being in a fun house at an amusement park. The light bulbs were missing in the stairway and there were rickety noises every time you stepped on the stairs. We went up the steps to the third floor and entered the gym. There were a couple of guys hitting the bags and a fighter up in the ring shadow boxing. I was just a little guy, and he looked like the biggest thing since King Kong. I was in awe of him, and he came over and shook our hands. He said ‘hey kids how you doing, I’m glad you came by to say hello.’ I thought that was the greatest thing since popcorn. That’s what did it for me with boxing, I was hooked. The fighter was Joey Giardello, middleweight champion of the world. He was training for his title defense against Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.”
“In high school I played football, basketball and baseball, but unlike my older brother who starred in everything I came off the bench. I played on special teams in football, 6th man on the basketball team and was a catcher in baseball. Academically my brother was an honor student, while I was happy getting C’s. When we weren’t playing football for the school, we’d play pickup games down at Crosier Field in South Philly. We had gangs, but nobody carried knives or guns like the gangs of today. We had the Sunny Siders, the Clinton gang, the Purple gang; they named themselves after Sinatra’s movies, Murders Row, etc.” We’d pass around wine and hard liquor on the sidelines.
“Around that same time I started getting in a lot of trouble from about the age of twelve until I was eighteen. I was drinking and fighting and the only one who seemed to get caught. I went before a judge when I was seventeen; it was June of 1966. I went before the judge and my father was there; he was my biggest cheerleader. I had just graduated from high school and had a job at an auto parts store. The judge looked at my juvenile record, and wanted to put me away. My father would have none of it. The judge told me, look the next time you come before me you’ll be eighteen; when you do I’m going to put you in jail. I would suggest that you go into the service. The next week I went down to the Army recruiter and joined the service. Part of the process was evaluating my juvenile record and issuing me a waiver so I could sign up.
“I was sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for basic training on my eighteenth birthday. After basic I went to jump school and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne in North Carolina. I remember crossing the border going into North Carolina on Interstate 95. There was a bill board that said ‘You Are in the Heart of Klan Country.’ I couldn’t believe what the sign said. After being at the bottom of the food change during basic training and jump school, we were proud to wear our “Jump Wings” when we entered a bar just outside of Fort Bragg. One of our paratroopers, Lacey Tate, was black and couldn’t get served. He had gone through basic training and jump school with us and we were joined at the hip as a result of those experiences. When we protested, we quickly found ourselves greatly outnumbered. But many of the civilians in the bar were also Airborne. Suddenly, the odds shifted in our favor, and we enjoyed the rest of the evening without incident. Eventually I was transferred to the 101st Airborne in Kentucky. At the completion of my training, I was told that I was a combat medic and was sent to Vietnam.
“Our destination was the Central Highlands, where the 173rd Airborne Brigade had suffered heavy casualties the previous year. We landed in Dak To before reaching our final destination. Getting off the helicopter the soldier next to me was shot in the butt. That’s when I realized this was for real.”
(At no time during this interview did Tom ever talk about himself as a hero or make himself sound like John Wayne. He was scared like everyone else. They depended on each other to stay alive.)
“It was in Vietnam that I found out I was a father of a little boy Thomas Jr., but I would not see him until he was nine months old. While I was in Vietnam there were plenty of drugs and booze, but when you entered a combat area neither drug was used. If someone did, they had more to fear from their own troops than the Viet Cong. You depended on each other to be sober and clear thinking; being stoned was not an option in combat. Unfortunately for Tom and many others it was an option when you were shipped back to base headquarters. This would result in many problems for returning troops at the end of the Vietnam conflict.”
While in Vietnam, Tom stopped writing to his wife and family. This brought him to the attention of the Red Cross. Many of the soldiers were found to be suffering from Combat Addiction. For many, combat is much more than a series of negative or distressing events. It’s an extremely arousing experience that stimulates powerful and exciting memories of performing one’s duties with great competence while feeling somewhat omnipotent at the same time. While the combat environment may yield many traumatic episodes, it is often full of exhilarating encounters.
After returning home, his marriage was not doing too well. He commented “I was drinking and I went to Hahnemann Medical College in Pennsylvania for half a day and worked in the hospital the rest of the day. I was paid for my time there including the time in class. This gave me lots of money to spend on booze and I did. I was chosen for the first class of physicians assistants to attend Duke University. I didn’t take it, I was so screwed up.”
“One day I saw an ad in the papers for a roofing job. I figured this would be a good way to make some money under the table while collecting unemployment. I was told to show up the next day. I was so happy that I got drunk that night and failed to show up for work. Two days later the guy called me and said do you want to work or not. The man who called me was Richie Marland and he owned Marland Roofing in Philadelphia. I was a good worker and he took a liking to me. I was still an alcoholic, but he taught me the roofing business, how to estimate a job, how to do the actual work and how to deal with the politics of the roofing business in general. Although I still had a drinking problem, he was the first person since Vietnam to at least cause me to slow down my destructive behavior. I also had a basic foundation of knowledge regarding roofing.”
Eventually his marriage imploded and he started to drift from job to job. His travels took him to Florida and eventually cross country to Albuquerque. Although he still had a drinking problem, he would always take day jobs and not handouts. This allowed him enough money to survive until the following day. “I wasn’t emotionally connected to my children, but I always sent money to support my two boys. This went on for about ten years. I’m not proud about that, but that was the reality of the situation.”
“When I got to Albuquerque I couldn’t find a job. One day I walked by a car wash, it was called Happy Times Car Wash. They had a sign that said they were looking for help. They hired me and two months later I was running the place. As luck would have it I got fixed up on a blind date. I wasn’t really interested, but I showed up and she was a nice person. Her name was Colleen and we started dating, I was still drinking at that time, but my life was slowly starting to get better. I had an apartment and she also had a job and her own place to live.”
“One day I was sitting at a red light at Lomas and Eubank going west. A second driver was coming down from Morris and he had an epileptic seizure behind the wheel. This caused him to push down on the gas pedal. He was rushing his mother-in-law to the hospital because of an apparent heart attack and his wife was in the back seat. His car hit me at about seventy five miles an hour, resulting in my neck being broken in three places, C 1, 2, 3. So I was in the hospital with this traction in my head. Colleen told the Doctor she would take me home to her apartment when I was able to leave the hospital. She cared for me, she fed me, and she even helped me get in and out of the tub. We weren’t even married and I don’t even know what I would have done if it wasn’t for her. I lived alone and knew no one in the city.” Colleen and Tommy tied the knot in 1980 and are married to this day. Apparently when Tommy was fixed up with Colleen on their blind date, nobody told him he was being fixed up with an angel.
“I was able to get a job in roofing and part of my job was buying roofing supplies. I met a man by the name of Leroy Wormington who ran the store. I didn’t know it at the time, but Wormington was a recovering alcoholic. I was married about a year when I came home drunk. Colleen gave me an ultimatum, get sober or be gone. That’s when Leroy Wormington stepped forward and offered to be my sponsor in AA. I accepted his help and it saved my marriage and my life.”
Today Tommy is the successful owner of Crego Roofing, is happily married and blessed to have a second chance at life. He made more mistakes in his life than a hundred people could have accomplished. Fortunately he also met people who saw the good in him, people who never gave up on him even when he gave up on himself.
He lost his mother when he was only ten years old, but he had a loving father and an older brother who were always there for him. Sadly his father’s job for Westinghouse as a turbine mechanic involved working with asbestos. Exposure to asbestos took both Tommy’s father and bother’s life at an early age. When his father would wash his work clothes they would be shaken before being hung up to dry. This exposed both his sons to this deadly form of cancer. Tom has traces of asbestos in his lungs, but fortunately it has remained dormant each time he has had a checkup. Tom lost his oldest son in his early twenties but his younger son has a successful concrete business in Philadelphia. For over ten years he wasn’t there emotionally for his two boys and no amount of money he sent them can ever make up for that. But thanks to his sobriety he had to opportunity to ask for their forgiveness and tell them that he loved them.
Tom has loved the sport of boxing from an early age, but can’t understand how so many of the boxers have nothing to show financially in spite of earning large sums of money during their careers. As a result he has reached out to the boxing community numerous times over the years to help young boxers both financially and emotionally. He’ll never talk about it because that’s not how Tommy Crego operates.
I’ve never interviewed a person who has been more open about his personal life, both his successes and failures. No one can correct the mistakes of the past, but Tommy Crego shows us how we can shape the future. When I sat down to do this interview, I had no idea how much he would touch me emotionally. I feel blessed to have him as a friend.