Making a Difference

Thomas DiAngelis, PT, DPT | 2017 Robert G. Dicus Award Winner

Thank you, Mr. President. Terry, they say that friends are people who know all about you but like you anyway. Thank you for being a friend. It is truly an honor to have you present me with this distinguished award.

I would like to thank the awards committee for considering me for this award and the PPS [Private Practice Section] board of directors for approving the committee’s recommendation. I would also like to thank a dear friend, colleague, and mentor, Peter Towne, for initiating the process—thank you, Peter. And to those who wrote letters of support, although I have spoken to you all personally, I want to again express my appreciation. When I received the packet that included the letters you all had written supporting me, they brought tears to my eyes. To think that you, all extraordinary individuals and leaders that I have the utmost respect for, wrote letters on my behalf. I can’t thank all of you enough.

Although I have stood before you as a speaker many times, I must be honest and tell you I have never been this nervous. Not only am I nervous but I feel very awkward standing here receiving this award. I feel this way because I am receiving it in part due to the support of many others, most importantly, all of you. It is the membership of this Section that has afforded me the privilege of serving, and I sincerely thank you for those opportunities. I feel awkward because there are many board members I served with, many staff, consultants, business associates, and many at APTA [American Physical Therapy Association] that I worked and collaborated with, who all have supported me and have significant influence in this recognition today. Knowing so many others contributed to my journey is what gives me this uncomfortable feeling. I also feel awkward when I look at the list of past recipients who I am awed by, and I can’t help but think, they must have made a mistake! I can think of many others who I feel are deserving of this award, and to be listed with this esteemed group of leaders who I admire and respect is a very humbling experience.


This journey also would not have ever been possible if I didn’t have the love and support of my family. As we all know, when you volunteer, there are sacrifices that are made by others, most often your family. I am blessed to have all three of my children with me today: my daughter Jennifer, sons Michael and Sander. So, Jennifer, Michael, and Sander, this is where I often was during some of your soccer games, school events, and the like! Although admittedly they never gave me a standing ovation before! I can’t thank the three of you enough for your love, support, and for being with me tonight. I love you.

And of course, I am blessed to be married to an amazing woman, Jeanine Gunn. Jeanine, I would not be standing here if it weren’t for your love, inspiration, and never-ending support. You have always encouraged me and stood right alongside of me no matter what. Thank you for always being there. I love you.

When I first ran for the PPS board of directors, the night before the big candidates’ speeches, Drew Bossen gave me some of the best advice I ever received. I don’t know if I ever shared this with Drew, but I have told others. He asked me what my speech was about, and after I told him he said, “Tommy, everybody has a laundry list of what they have done; what you need to do is express what is in your heart.” So, thanks to Drew, I couldn’t sleep, I was awake at 3 a.m. tearing up my speech and retyping it! Well, it worked, I had many positive comments about the speech, and a lot of people told me it’s what swayed their vote.

So when I started thinking about what to say this evening, I thought back to Drew’s advice and thought about what was in my heart, as it relates to me standing here tonight. That led me to thinking about three people who had tremendous influence on me, and who dedicated themselves not only to volunteerism but to making a difference in others’ lives. Before I get to them, however, we can’t talk about making a difference without first mentioning the individuals who have made a tremendous difference in all our lives. Many of you sitting here are understandably unaware of the PPS story and the people who made it possible for us to be here. First, of course, is Robert Dicus, who I did not know personally; however, from everyone I have spoken to about him and everything I have read about him, he was an amazing person, a man of incredible vision, passion, and integrity, a leader’s leader. He cherished people and his relationships. Thankfully, Bob’s character is captured in the archives of the Section, never to be forgotten. It was Bob Dicus, along with Charles Magistro and Jim McKillip, who recognized the need for a “self-employed section” within APTA, and in 1954 gathered interested private practitioners at the APTA conference to set the wheels in motion. These leaders were the catalyst to forming what we all know now as the Private Practice Section. We are all indebted to them, and it is their vision and tremendous leadership that have made a difference for all of us. Let us never forget those who paved the way for us.

Now, as for the three individuals who have significantly influenced me: The first is my grandmother. I came to realize later in life she was the most incredible woman I ever knew. First, Grandpa: An Italian immigrant, he was a carpenter, and if any of you have ever heard the John Prine song “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” that was him (if you are really lucky, you might get to hear Terry and I sing it at the bar one night!). Being a carpenter during the Depression didn’t exactly bring home a lot of money. There was very little work, so Grandma would walk the streets of Boonton, New Jersey, with her three small children, selling pin cushions she made for 5 cents each to help support the family. Then one day she decided to open a hair salon. Yes, during the Depression! I am sure many people thought she was crazy. She opened it in the town I grew up in, Riverdale, New Jersey. A remarkable success, the business lived on in our small town for over 70 years, and she became the major breadwinner of the family. But it is what she did with her success that I witnessed as a young boy growing up. You see, Grandma was also a full-time volunteer. I watched her tirelessly work to raise money for the local hospital. There is a picture of her from 1973 giving a check to the hospital for over $19,000 (equivalent to about $120,000 in today’s dollars). She volunteered for the hospital auxiliary and served as president twice; she started the Golden Ages senior program in town and served as president. At Christmas she would make my grandfather, or one of my uncles, dress up as Santa and take them to the hospital to give presents to every child in the hospital—yes, presents that she purchased. My uncle, who is now the sole survivor and family historian, recently shared a story of when a young girl in town broke her leg and her family had no money for medical expenses; it was Grandma who had a fundraiser and provided the family with the money they needed. She could not stop volunteering and giving if she wanted to. A very religious woman (yes, Italian Catholic, watch out there!), she knew she was blessed and wanted others to feel blessed as well. I watched her while I was growing up, and to me that’s just what Grandma did; she worked, she volunteered, and yes, she spoiled her grandchildren! She was a true leader in our community and a woman way ahead of her time, you see . . .


She cared about others and made a difference in people’s lives.

Watching her while growing up was a tremendous, positive influence on me. My regret is that in my younger years I did not recognize how remarkable she was and tell her before she passed.

Now, Grandma’s volunteerism carried over to my father, for as a youngster not only was I watching Grandma volunteer but my father as well. He served on the town council and school board of education. He was a baseball coach, and he ran a summer program in our town for kids. My father was a school teacher— of industrial arts to be exact; Elmer can tell you, and yes, Elmer was his student in high school! Is that not a small world! My father was also active in his association at the time, the New Jersey Education Association. He went on to school administration where he was a high school vice president, and in this role he counseled students and handled discipline. My father was loved by all; fun loving, the life of the party, and he always found a reason to laugh. Despite being the disciplinarian for the school, kids loved him because he recognized that we were kids and we were going to make mistakes. You always had a second chance with “Mr. D,” as he was affectionately known. But I can tell you, by golly don’t do the same stupid thing twice! When my dad passed in 1995 at the young age of 63, I was at the house with my sisters making the arrangements and the phone rang. A woman was on the line, and she asked me if this was Mike DiAngelis’s house. I told her yes and that I was his son. She said she had to call because she had just heard the news, was saddened, and wanted to share what my father did for her. She went on to say that when she was in high school she made a mistake and got pregnant. She told the story of how some people were telling her to abort the pregnancy; others were saying she should drop out of school to have the baby. She was distraught, confused, and felt alone. She said she confided in my father, and he was the only one who encouraged her that she could have the baby and finish high school. She said that thanks to him, she was a high school graduate with a beautiful 10-year-old daughter. She had sought his counsel because of who he was, you see . . .

He cared about others and made a difference in people’s lives.

Now, for the final person. Well, this is the person who saved me my senior year of high school and who is a prime reason I stand before you today. I am talking about my high school football coach, Bob Sawyer. When I was in high school we had the jocks, the hippies, the greasers, and the nerds. I had some of my father’s personality and I could roll and hang out with all of them. So, before the start of my senior year, my parents’ marital problems came to a head. With that, they had their own issues to deal with, and after football season I started hanging with the hippies more. I stopped looking at colleges and thought I would take a year to work and then look to go to school. One day Coach Sawyer cornered me. He said, “Tommy D” (yes, growing up my dad was Mr. D and I was Tommy D), “Tommy D, what are you going to do next year?” I said, “Well Coach, I think I am going to work a year and then go to college.” He just looked at me and said, “No you’re not, I don’t know anyone that has taken the year off and then gone to college, you are going to college.” It wasn’t but a short time later I had a call from a football coach at a small school in East Orange, New Jersey, Upsala College. He said he had talked to my coach and seen my films, and wanted me to come and play for him. And that is how I got my first taste of college, without going into all the details that eventually led to me graduating from Northeastern University with my degree in physical therapy six years later.


I tried for years to track down Coach Sawyer because I wanted to thank him and let him know the difference he made in my life; I didn’t want the same regret I had with my grandmother. I honestly feel that if it weren’t for him I don’t know what I would have become. Certainly, the path I was on wasn’t the best. I searched many times, but any time I got a number for him it didn’t work.

I caught a break last year when a friend who grew up on my street ran into him at a restaurant/bar in Florida. At last I had a number that worked! We connected by phone and talked for a couple of hours. Then, luckily, earlier this year the Graham Sessions were in Florida, and I got to see him and personally thank him for caring and making a difference in my life.

I saw him again this past August as we watched the eclipse at his summer home in Wyoming with my best friend from high school. During our visit, his wife brought out his scrapbooks and as we went through them we came across a list of names of everyone he helped get into college over the years, the list had almost 80 of us on it! He didn’t just coach and teach, you see . . .

He cared about others and made a difference in people’s lives.

My friends, I humbly stand before you and hope that I have somewhere, somehow made a small difference. I sincerely thank you for allowing me to serve you, and for this recognition.

Copyright © 2018, Private Practice Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. All Rights Reserved.

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