As the six-year anniversary of the death of Tom Hopkins approaches, his family is in a reflective, grateful mood.
The Tom Hopkins Foundation will be the honoree of the South Side Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 15.
Hopkins, of Morgan Park, died on March 26, 2014, at age 58, after battling melanoma, and all the work that his family and friends have completed to celebrate his life has made the foundation a perfect choice as this year’s honoree.
The Tom Hopkins Foundation has provided thousands of dollars to families batting cancer, as well as local Catholic elementary schools’ athletic programs.
The foundation’s mission embodies a man, who, according to his youngest son, Liam, was always thinking of others.
“Be kind to one another. Just work hard,” Liam said was his father’s approach to life. “He was just passionate to live every day like it was his last.”
Hopkins and his wife, Margie, moved into the parish of St. Cajetan Roman Catholic Church in 1986. They raised four children—Tommy, Martin, Liam and Annie.
Tom battled melanoma for nine weeks, his family said, after defeating it once in his 20s.
Shortly after his death, Hopkins’ loved ones established the foundation. It has supported families from the start, and, since 2018, donated thousands of dollars to the athletic departments of local schools. Last year, 10 Catholic elementary schools each received $2,000.
The foundation’s signature fundraising event is the Papa Hops 16-inch Softball Tournament, held each year since the summer of 2014. The 32-team competition is one of the premiere softball tournaments in the Chicago area. Teams recruit players for their rosters months beforehand. Players clear their schedules to make sure they’re available.
The tournament, held on a Friday night every year, featured 18 teams the first year, then 28 the next three. The past two years have included 32 teams, the same number that will compete this year on July 10.
Games are held at Beverly, Mt. Greenwood and Kennedy parks, with the championship at Kennedy Park under the lights—near a scoreboard the foundation purchased. Thousands of people surround the field, and Liam Hopkins gives a brief speech thanking attendees for their support.
Throwing out the first pitch are families who are battling cancer.
Liam said it is gratifying to see so many people rallying around a charitable cause.
“It truly humbles us,” Liam said, “because you see everyone out there—they’re there for that reason. The biggest part really is when we have that first pitch.”
Kevin Gibson was lifetime friends with Hopkins and is part of the foundation committee that organizes the softball tournament. He loves seeing families flock to the park that summer night.
“It’s the best event in the neighborhood,” Gibson said. “I view it as Kennedy Park came back to life after the start of this tournament.”
Gibson said he was stunned when Hopkins’ children said they wanted to start the tournament just months after their father died. Sure enough, they created a neighborhood phenomenon, all to help local charitable efforts.
“It’s like watching your kids play Little League again,” Gibson said. “It’s just a great night. What the Hopkins kids have done has been tremendous.”
Margie Hopkins said the week leading up to the tournament is emotional, but the day of the event is surreal. Attendees frequently come up to her and express their support. She is overwhelmed by how many people rally behind her family.
“We truly have a bond here,” Margie said. “We are the South Side, and I’m proud to say that.”
She heaped praise on her children and their friends who run the tournament. Millennials might catch grief, she said, but she is proud of the next generation of community leaders.
They don’t think anything of their actions, she said.
“They see hardship. They live it,” Margie said. “They want to help. They want to be a part of it.”
Tom Hopkins was similarly humble, Margie said. He always looked out for the underdog, and just about anywhere the couple went, he knew someone. Known as a great storyteller, Hopkins was “an outstanding listener,” Margie said, and eagerly wanted to hear stories from other people.
During his cancer treatments, he befriended a young boy at the hospital going through the same struggles. It kept things in perspective.
“He never once complained,” Margie said. “He would just say, ‘Thank God it’s not one of my kids.’ It’s just the way he was—an unselfish man.”
An avid reader, Hopkins also loved writing, his wife said. When they visited Ireland in 2000, he kept a daily journal.
When he battled melanoma, he turned to his favorite musicians, such as Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, to provide comfort.
“Music was everything to him,” Margie said. “When he was sick, he would listen to music. It was his therapy.”
Tom always advised his children to get involved and “make a difference,” his wife said. A proud Leo High School alumnus, he was part of the father’s club at St. Rita High School, which all of his sons attended, and St. Cajetan Church. He was also part of the St. Cajetan athletic board and a high school basketball referee for over 20 years.
His children were active in sports, and Tom was their No. 1 fan.
“He went to every game. He would go to games our kids weren’t even involved in,” Margie said. “He just loved to watch the kids play.”
An annual fourth-grade boys basketball tournament at St. Cajetan was renamed the Tom Hopkins Memorial St. Cajetan Turkey Shoot in 2017.
Hopkins also ran a family-owned sewer business that thrived, thanks in part to his genuine personality.
“His word was his bond,” Gibson said. “When you shook hands with Tom, that’s all you needed when it came to business.”
Hopkins never played softball, but as his children grew into adults, he organized a summer league at Kennedy Park for them and their friends. Every team played two games on Sundays, with local bars sponsoring them.
The players knew how much Hopkins cared about them.
“A lot of our friends, they all loved Mr. Hopkins,” Liam said. “He was like a second father to a lot of people in that way.”
The South Side Parade was always a special day growing up, Liam said, and he notices similarities between the event and the Papa Hops softball tournament. Both started small and became neighborhood staples.
He said he is grateful to the committee for selecting the foundation over the many other great local organizations.
He is proud to follow in the footsteps of last year’s honoree, “Choose Kind Chicago,” a campaign inspired by Mary Cate Lynch, a young girl from Beverly who has a rare craniofacial condition.
Liam said his father would have never wanted the spotlight that the foundation has shined on helping others.
The credit for that, Liam said, belongs to local residents.
“Everyone who comes to support our mission, it really just humbles you,” Liam said. “And, that goes back to our community. There’s really no other place like it.”
For more information on the Tom Hopkins Foundation, visit papahops.org.