By Eileen O. Daday
Daily Herald correspondent
Thomas Shirley retired more than 20 years ago, but longtime administrators with Northwest Suburban High School District 214 still refer to him as the "heart and soul" of Wheeling High School.
Shirley passed away on Sunday. The former Prospect Heights resident and alderman was 82.
"His whole focus was doing what's best for the kids at Wheeling," says Robert Cudney, former District 214 assistant superintendent. "He was devoted to the kids, first of all, and to the community."
Shirley began his career in 1956, teaching math at Arlington High School. When Wheeling High School opened in 1964 he was named assistant principal, and the next year he became principal, a job he held for 25 years before retiring in 1990.
"He made every effort to try to provide the best education for the kids there, through excellent staffing and budgeting," said Edward Spacapan, former Prospect High School principal.
Colleagues point to the strong band program that Shirley nurtured as well as its academics and fine arts.
Wheeling Band Director Brian Logan started at the school the year Shirley retired, but he says he inherited a commitment to excellence.
"The music program flourished during his tenure," Logan says, "and he remained a big fan of all the music programs at Wheeling."
Brian Lichtenberger, current operations director for District 214, was hired in 1980 as a full-time athletic trainer at Wheeling High School, which he says at the time was fairly groundbreaking.
"Tom was part of the original group of principals who believed in hiring full time athletic trainers to provide on-site sports medicine and care for student athletes," Lichtenberger says.
"He was a real visionary," Lichtenberger adds. "When you think of all the attention paid now to concussions, heat and lightning policies and return to play, he was instrumental in advocating for that."
Lichtenberger described Shirley as honest, caring and supportive of his staff. He said it translated into stability and a standard of excellence at the school.
Wheeling was the first District 214 school to win a Blue Ribbon Award for Excellence from the U.S. Department of Education.
Under Shirley's leadership, in 1969 Wheeling also became the first suburban school to start a Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program. It reflected his years as a Naval captain during the Korean conflict, and his decision to remain active in the reserves.
Shirley immersed himself in Wheeling High School, right from the beginning. Working alongside parents, he helped to stock, shelve and create the library for the new school when it opened.
A decade later, the room was set afire in a devastating blaze, and he was the first person to receive a phone call from the fire department.
Colleagues say he made it a priority to get the library running again, stocking it with furniture from the original supplier and filling it with the same books -- all in a matter of months.
Wheeling administrators remembered Shirley's hands-on commitment to the library when they renamed the facility in his name, in 2001.
Shirley was retired by the time Bill Dussling joined the District 214 board in 1997. But the two chatted occasionally, and Shirley was always interested in what was new in education.
"Tom was a gentleman whose long service in the district was instrumental in the development of the learning environment at Wheeling High School and in District 214," Dussling said.
Shirley is survived by his wife, Linda, and children, Scott (Kristine), Stephen, David and Philip (Andra) Shirley, as well as six grandchildren.
Visitation will take place from 3-9 p.m. Wednesday, at Glueckert Funeral Home, 1520 N. Arlington Heights Road, before an 11 a.m. funeral service Thursday, at the Orchard Evangelical Free Church, 1330 N. Douglas Ave., both in Arlington Heights.