Homeless man's death prompts outpouring of compassion in Libertyville
He was found dead between two buildings, a homeless man who grew up in town and had been a fixture on the streets of Libertyville for many years.
But it wasn't always that way. Jack Thomas, 48, was a high school grad with college degrees, a talkative sort who loved cars and music. He was said to be a dreamer who went to California in the mid-'90s to be discovered and returned a different person.
No one is sure what changed him. Drug use? Undiagnosed mental illness? Some other life event? But news of his passing Monday spread within minutes and triggered a remarkable outpouring of compassion from the Libertyville High School Class of 1986.
Within two days, 150 people contributed $11,000 to a GoFundMe page to make sure their old pal received a proper burial.
An adopted only child, Thomas was said to be estranged from his parents who live in another state.
"We've had a bunch of people call who want to take care of things," Lake County Coroner Howard Cooper said.
Next of kin have agreed to let locals handle the arrangements, Cooper said. So though he didn't own a house in Libertyville, Thomas will be laid to rest at home.
"This was a dear friend whose life took a turn for the worse," said Peter Keefe, who met Thomas in kindergarten at Rockland School. "We knew him in a better light."
Keefe has lived in San Antonio, Texas, the past 13 years but is imbued with the fabric of his hometown, where six of his eight siblings live. He said he knew of Thomas' death within minutes of it being reported.
"In a small town, people pull together," Keefe said. "He affected a lot of lives. He's somebody we know and loved and grew up with."
Lifelong resident and classmate Joe Sweeney, who has been involved with the fundraising, recalled Thomas as a "chubby kid with buck teeth" back in fifth grade. He was super smart and always around, an affable guy who grew on people, he said.
"I got busy with life and kids and then one day, he's on the street. What happened?" Sweeney asked.
"It's just one of those things. You knew him but you didn't know his story."
The death of a homeless person often goes unnoticed, as part of a shadowy subculture many either aren't aware of or choose to ignore. Thomas had issues but was different in a good way, say those who knew him.
"The bottom line was the guy was not a bum," said Mark Santini, owner of Wholesale Carpet Designs along Milwaukee Avenue on the north end of town. For 13 years, Thomas lived under an overhang in the passage between Santini's place and the business next door.
"I knew him well. I trusted him," said Santini, who called police to report the death shortly before 1 p.m. Monday. "He managed just fine. He had just enough. He was good with that."
Cooper said Friday the cause of death is under investigation but is considered as being of natural causes.
Thomas was a familiar presence wearing a backpack and riding a bicycle around town. Some days he was in another world talking jibberish blended with periods of lucidity. But he was always there, a good guy who got lost in the shuffle, those who knew him say.
Over the years, friends looked out for him. They would slip him a bit of money, give him clothes, or buy him dinner. But he declined anything more.
"I think he'd be amazed how many people today really cared about him," said Ron Pasowicz, who managed the Dog Ear record shop when Thomas worked there in high school and college. "It's an honorable way to put a Libertyville friend to rest."