Msgr. Thomas Hartman, the Roman Catholic priest from Long Island nationally known as half of the God Squad, a popular television show about religion, died following a years-long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 69.
Father Tom, as he was known, became a household name with Rabbi Marc Gellman following the success of the TV show they co-hosted for 20 years on Telecare, the faith-based cable network that Hartman ran for the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The show led to a nationally-syndicated newspaper column, as well as regular TV and radio appearances on shows with larger audiences than their own, such as Good Morning America. After his diagnosis, Hartman stepped back from the spotlight and founded a charity that donated millions to find a cure for Parkinson’s.
“Our friendship produced many words, but it never needed words,” Gellman wrote in his Newsday column Wednesday eulogizing Hartman. “Tommy taught me that smiles are more important than words, and I do not need words now to remember that transformative wisdom.”
Hartman grew up in East Williston before entering the Hempstead seminary when he was in the ninth grade after passing up his dream of becoming a baseball player and instead joining the clergy like his uncle, aunts and cousins before him. He was ordained in 1971 and eight years later graduated with a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkley.
Hartman was also a parish priest at St. Vincent de Paul in Elmont and a chaplain for the Nassau County Police Department. Hartman joined forces with Gellman, the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, after the two met while discussion religion on News12 Long Island. The next day, they formed the God Squad, in which the straight-laced Hartman and quick-witted Gellman discussed morality and religion.
The duo eventually became LI’s best-known clergymen, making appearances on national cable news networks. They were even animated for an HBO children’s special based on their book of the same name, How Do You Spell God? But if they ever struggled to balance their fame and their duties, it never showed.
”I’m definitely the straight man,” Hartman told The New York Times during the height of their fame in the ‘90s. ”Marc is much funnier than I and more vocal. I’m quieter. I want Marc to be the star. To some degree I’ve had more fame. Initially he had to gain it. So it was bigger in his mind. And in many ways he’s more talented than I.”
In 2003, Hartman broke the news of his diagnoses in his newspaper column, which had only launched a year prior. He had kept it secret for four years by that point. Gellman still writes the column for Tribune Media Services, but visited Hartman weekly at the nursing home where Father Tom lived until his passing.
Hartman’s charity donations led to the formation of the Thomas Hartman Foundation for Parkinson Research in the Department of Neurobiology & Behavior at Stony Brook University. Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.