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Farmer, former coach Tom McGunnigle’s passions included family, competition

The joke in the McGunnigle family is that the patriarch, Tom McGunnigle Sr., was like a cat with nine lives, but then again, who was counting?

Over the course of his life, Mr. McGunnigle experienced a history of health-related misfortune that can only be described as, well, almost unbelievable.

He spent five years of his childhood on crutches. When he was a kid, he was working on a car when it fell off a cinder block and crushed all of his ribs. His left leg and left thumb were severed in a horrific car accident. He underwent knee replacements several times, rotator cuff surgeries on both shoulders, had both hips replaced, dealt with carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, suffered a broken spine that later in life caused him headaches, was stricken with blood diseases from transfusions he received and dealt with congestive heart failure. He was told several times he would never walk again.

And that list isn’t comprehensive.

Last rites were read to him on three occasions.

“Just craziness,” said one of his sons, Tom McGunnigle Jr.

One of his daughters, Teri Zuhoski, joked that when a doctor asked for their father’s medical history, “We all like looked at each other like, where do you even start?”

And because of Mr. McGunnigle’s astounding history of overcoming setbacks, it may have caught his wife, Judy, and their four children, gathered together in a Stony Brook University Hospital room, a bit off guard when he died Oct. 27. The Peconic man was 76 years old. Family members said he had developed pneumonia and sepsis.

“Honestly, that’s I guess why I wasn’t prepared this time,” Ms. McGunnigle said. “I don’t think any of us were. He always beat everything, any accidents, any anythings, just you name it, and he always found a way and he rallied several times in the hospital this last time.”

Mr. McGunnigle had worked as a farmer, coach, bus driver and construction worker. Just as remarkable as his string of accidents, injuries and illnesses was how he responded to them. A thrill-seeker who had a bit of a daredevil in him, he was determined not to let physical limitations prevent him from doing what he wanted. His life was notable for a wide array of activities. He drove a motorcycle to the top of Pike’s Peak. He raced cars at Riverhead Raceway. He jumped horses at Madison Square Garden. He deliberately flipped cars on his farm, apparently for the fun of it.

“He made me nervous most of my married life,” Ms. McGunnigle said of their marriage of 52 years.

Mr. McGunnigle almost became a professional bowler, but he was also an expert ping-pong player and a scratch golfer.

“And what the heck kind of motorhead is an Island’s End golf champ?” his son Dan McGunnigle asked. “Like, how does that go together?”

Mr. McGunnigle survived a gruesome accident on a winter evening in 1976 while plowing snow for Southold Town. He was tending to the back of his truck near the post office in Laurel when an oncoming car smashed into the back of the truck, pinning him between the car and the truck, according to Tom Jr.

“He said when he laid there in the snow, dying was not an option,” his daughter Samantha Heidtmann said. “He had three kids and Mom at home and he said the pain to stay awake was overwhelming, and he just knew that’s what he had to do and he did.”

Mr. McGunnigle’s leg was later reattached. He lost a thumb. But he lived.

“That was a miracle,” said his wife. 

Determination was a part of Mr. McGunnigle’s makeup. That may be traced to his youth when he had Perthes disease, a rare childhood condition that affects the hip. Dan McGunnigle said his father essentially taught himself how to walk again by carefully studying how other people walked.

Perhaps Mr. McGunnigle’s extreme competitiveness could be traced back to those days as well. His relatives told tales of him outracing other children on his crutches.

Mr. McGunnigle was competitive to such a degree that his children said he never eased up on them. Regardless of whether it was a board game, croquet or ping-pong, he wanted to win.

“It didn’t matter if it was cards or the Long Island championship, they were all played with equal intensity to win,” said Dan McGunnigle.

Mr. McGunnigle brought that competitive nature to the boys golf, boys bowling and softball teams he coached for Southold.

Ms. McGunnigle got an idea of what her future husband was like when they first met at a bowling alley in Mattituck. What was her first impression?

“I thought he was crazy,” she said. “He threw the ball like a wild man and he was just so intense.

“He did not just have fun at doing anything,” she continued. “Doing it to the best of his ability was what was fun to him.”

Mr. McGunnigle apparently had a strong belief in the power of positive thinking.

“He always told us … mental toughness and positivity just can take you so much further than you ever imagined it could, and we think that’s what got him as far as he did,” Ms. Zuhoski said. “His physical body might have been breaking down, but mentally he always just found a way to stay positive.”

Ms. Heidtmann pointed out examples of her father’s acts of kindness. She said he had a soft spot for animals and once raised a baby deer that had been abandoned by its mother. He allowed a childhood friend of hers who was going through a rough period to keep her horse at the farm for free in the hope that it would steer her on the right path, and for years he offered free golf lessons to kids.

Dan McGunnigle said, “For me, he was like a superhero, so it was pretty much he could do anything — and I’m not kidding when I say he could do anything.”

On his farm of close to 50 acres, where the McGunnigles lived in a house he built, he grew potatoes and later alfalfa. But the farm meant a lot more to him than just produce. It was home, the place for family gatherings and family Sunday dinners. “He lived for that,” said Ms. McGunnigle.

She added: “He enjoyed life to the fullest. I don’t think he had any regrets. He just did everything at full bore and he had the family he wanted. He had the life he wanted.”

Ms. Heidtmann said: “We love him very much. We miss him dearly already. I do feel like the legacy he left is so incredible to his family. We have the farm, which is a place we can always go and he’s everywhere. So, it’s really comforting to drive down that road and literally know that he has touched that place everywhere, and that’s something we will always have.”

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