FRESH MEADOWS — When Thomas Sheehan died of stomach cancer in 1985 at the age of 48, classmates from his old high school, St. Francis Prep, got together and established a scholarship fund in his memory that over the years has helped nearly 50 students with their tuition costs.
The Thomas J. Sheehan Memorial Scholarship Fund is going to be able to help a lot more St. Francis Prep students now that a donor has given the high school a cool $1 million.
Yes, you read that right — $1 million.
“It’s the largest donation from a single donor we’ve ever received,” said Brother Leonard Conway, O.S.F., the school’s president.
The donation came in the form of a personal check from the donor. “There’s a lot of zeros after the one on the check,” Brother Leonard marveled.
The donor, who is known to school officials but wishes to remain anonymous to the public, stipulated that the money be put toward the Sheehan scholarship.
“We’re incredibly grateful to our anonymous donor and his generous spirit that will help ensure more students have access to the Prep and its wonderful community,” said Jack Ward, a friend of Sheehan’s who helped organize the scholarship fund and now manages it.
It was Ward who notified Brother Conway of the donor’s plans to give $1 million to the school.
Sheehan, a member of the Class of 1955, was a track star at St. Francis Prep back in the days when the school was located on Baltic Street in Downtown Brooklyn. The scholarship established in his name is awarded to seniors with athletic talent who also post good grades.
Sheehan, who was one of three children of Thomas and Jane Sheehan, grew up on 22nd Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues in Brooklyn. The family attended Mass at St John the Evangelist Church and the Sheehan children — Carolyn, Thomas and Jerry — attended the parish school. Thomas was then awarded a sports scholarship to St. Francis Prep.
“The scholarship definitely helped him out,” Jerry Sheehan recalled. “And because of it, he always felt like he should give something back. My mom and dad volunteered at St. John the Evangelist and at the Prep to kind of pay back for the scholarship that he was given. He did a lot of volunteer work, too.”
Jerry Sheehan described his brother as a humble guy who never bragged about his athletic accomplishments.
In one of his best races, he ran the mile in 4:26. At the time, the mile record for high school athletes was 4:20. ‘So he was right up there with the best,” Jerry Sheehan said.
Thomas Sheehan also loved running in relay races, according to his brother. In the Catholic High School Championships of 1955, the relay team from St. Francis Prep ran the two-mile race in 7:50 and set a national record. It marked the first time a high school team ran the distance in less than eight minutes.
“He was a very good student at the Prep. And he was an outstanding track star,” Brother Leonard said. “I guess in the late ‘50s, the classes were kind of small, and everybody knew each other. His class bonded very well. And when he passed away, they wanted his name and his legacy to continue. That’s how all of this came about.”
The $1 million donation is so large, it will allow the school to expand the scholarship fund beyond seniors and begin awarding scholarships to students in lower classes.
This year, four seniors earned Sheehan scholarships. Gabriela Moraglia, a member of the swim team, is a Sheehan scholarship winner.
“I was shocked when I heard about the $1 million donation but I was happy, too, because it means more students will get help like I did,” she said.
Skye Owen, who plays basketball at St. Francis Prep, said scholarship helped prepare her for college. “I feel that the money has given me the opportunity that I wouldn’t have had,” she said.
Another basketball player, Jaden Daughtry, appreciates not only what the scholarship has done for him but for his family as well. “It’s a relief. My family can concentrate on other things and not worry about paying for my school,” Jaden said.
The scholarship has helped students in more ways than just financially, according to Chance Morrish, a senior and member of the basketball team, who explained that students strive to feel worthy of the scholarship. “I think it has helped me personally. I know I have to keep my grades up,” Chance said.
Jerry Sheehan said his family is happy to see students getting help. “My family is grateful to Jack Ward and the guys who started the scholarship,” he added.