Vantage Point: The Loss of a Quiet Hero

The two weeks before Thanksgiving brought sad news of the loss of two great people. One is well known through his national prominence in the Surveyors Historical Society and the Maryland Society of Surveyors. Chas Langelan brought great warmth and his love of our profession to everything he did, and his sudden heart failure was a shock to me. I will continue to miss him for quite a while.

But it is the other person now missing from my life, a quiet hero of surveying and a good friend, who I will miss more. After a number of years of declining health and a recent worsening, Thomas McGrath decided to turn down life support, knowing that his heart would completely fail within some unknown number of hours and his death would be hastened—but under his own terms. He always questioned deeply, considered clearly, and decided firmly.

Within the realm of surveying in New Jersey, Thomas’ influences on a generation of upcoming surveyors and on those who were of his own era were worthy of the highest accolades. Yet the 1989 award as NJSPLS Surveyor of the Year and 1999 award for Lifetime Achievement barely touch the depth of his devotion to the profession.

I met Thomas about 35 years ago, a few years after I became active in NJSPLS, captivated by and swept up into the many shared interests of its members to improve our profession. Meeting one person led to meeting another and another and another, until eventually I somehow met Thomas while he was teaching surveying classes at Middlesex County College. His devotion to teaching and learning became immediately obvious, and formed one of the strong ties between us for the next decades.

The New Jersey State Board had just passed regulations phasing in requirements for a four year degree in surveying as prerequisite to sitting for the licensure examination. At about the same time, the single educational institution in the state offering such a curriculum abruptly decided to terminate its program. During a highly charged meeting, university higher ups told members of NJSPLS that it would restart the degree program if NJSPLS put it together, apparently expecting us to fail in the process of compiling first a list of course credits and then syllabi for all the courses to comprise such a program that would be accredited by ABET.

It was Thomas who stepped to the forefront, and with his experience in fulfilling similar assignments, convened a number of meetings to decide the all-important question of what it takes to be a well-educated and well-rounded surveyor. In those days before email, we used physical meetings and phone calls and snail mail correspondence to argue the balance between technical background and legal background, and how the humanities fit into the scheme of things. Under Thomas’ guidance and energy, we researched programs at other colleges and universities, wrote a program with course outlines and syllabi, and forced the university’s hand to re-introduce—and re-invigorate—its surveying program.

That vast investment of heartfelt energies began a long friendship. With two other surveyors who had worked on the survey program, and another who was equally invested in learning, we began meeting at the State law library one Saturday morning every month to look through the statutes and case law affecting surveying. I don’t remember exactly how that all started, but perhaps it was because I had taught myself how to do legal research when studying for my first licensing exam and couldn’t believe that all the laws and regulations I had to know wre included on the single double-sided page the State Board had sent me. I honed our group’s researching skills.

We pulled books from the shelves either to search for specific laws or to see if there were any new cases that might be of interest to us. In the process, we decided there was much more applicable to the surveying profession than the few titles most commonly referenced, and started compiling lists of statutes relating to pierheads and bulkheads, wetlands, adverse possession, fences, forms of conveyancing, validity of contracts, and on and on and on.

We would gather around a table and discuss what we had found, then go out for lunch and continue to talk well into dessert, with Thomas often playing Devil’s Advocate. Sometimes others would join us for a meeting or two, but we core members came through that pastime with a joy of discovery and debate.

Thomas’ generosity of spirit and sense of mission propelled him to offer my chapter of NJSPLS two days of his time to help us pay an insurmountable legal tab from a case we had won against our insurance company for event coverage for our annual picnic. Our attorney had reassured us at the start of the suit that fees would not be a problem, and we could work things out later. At the suit’s successful conclusion, in which we won the coverage but not reimbursement of our legal fees (this was a contract dispute and not a tort action), it turned out that the accommodation would be an extension of time over which the five digit fee would have to be paid, not a reduction in fee despite this law firm representing the state surveying society and all of its chapters, one of which I was then president of. Thomas presented two full-day workshops for us, filling the room with several hundred surveyors each time, and we paid off the bill immediately afterwards, with enough left over to return donations from other chapters that had stepped up to save us from sure demise under a burden that could have been any of theirs as well.

Terrible weather meant I could not get to Thomas’ viewing and funeral more than two hours away. I try to console myself by thinking of the twinkle in his eyes as they suddenly crinkled with a sly smile or full laugh, his rich Shakespearian voice, complete with dramatic pauses, how we used to talk about gardening (his love of roses and my refusal to grow any after being traumatized by Japanese beetles and thorns), and solemn musings about our profession. Most of all, I wish more people knew the quiet hero that Thomas McGrath was.

About the Author

Wendy Lathrop, PS, CFM

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.