He grew up poor in Ireland, orphaned at 12 and working on the family farm. At 18, he immigrated to America, landing in Omaha with an elementary school education.
“A skinny little Irish runt,” he recalled. “5-6 ½ and 116 pounds, with reddish-brown hair and a thick accent. I was as Irish as Paddy’s pig.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, Tom Hernon counts his blessings in the country where he operates a small concrete company named “Liberty,” its red, white and blue logo featuring the Liberty Bell.
But the homeland he left a half-century ago beckons, too.
Last year he found himself unbelievably at the State Reception Room in Dublin, chatting with no less than the president of the Republic of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.
“It was an emotional day for me,” Tom said. “Here I was, a poor kid from the west of Ireland, sitting with my beautiful family and having lunch with the president. It was awesome.”
The occasion, as the formal invitation showed, was a luncheon “in honour of the Hernon family.”
Attending were the extended Hernon family, including offspring of his siblings, 54 relatives in all. Among them was Noah McNeil, then 6, earnestly asking the president: Where do the leprechauns hide the gold?
Ah, I’m sorry, President Higgins told the boy on his grandpa Tom’s knee, but I promised not to tell.
Tom wasn’t chasing rainbows, let alone pots of gold, when thinking about a move to America. But, like those who made the voyage by sea in the 19th century, he did want a better life.
He was the youngest of six children in Milltown, north of Galway. In the 1960s, unemployment was high and hopes were low.
He had admired President John F. Kennedy, also of Irish ancestry. Though Tom’s family didn’t have a TV, he became a Fighting Irish football fan by listening to Notre Dame games on Armed Forces Radio.
Three older sisters — Kitty, Mary and Ann — already lived in Omaha, and Ann took out a loan to pay his airfare. (He eventually paid off the debt.)
When Tom got to New York with $12 in his pocket, everything was new to him — first drinking fountain, first time making change in a new currency.
“I did know,” he said, “that four quarters made a dollar.”
He got to Omaha and found an entry-level job at Paxton-Vierling Steel Co. But he was so homesick that he went back to Ireland, only to return to Omaha for good weeks later.
After a few years, he got a job at the Western Electric distribution center at 67th and F Streets and joined the union. In 1977, he married Marcia Lewis of Omaha, and they bought a frame house in Dundee.
They had two children, and he worked a 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift, usually doing a side job in the afternoon — building decks for friends, laying concrete and more.
He once got so frustrated about a pothole on the asphalt street in front of his house that he filled it himself — with concrete. The World-Herald carried a story.
We were neighbors for more than a decade. Tom, who had mostly lost his accent and added muscle since his arrival in America, was affectionately known as the leprechaun of the block.
He was helpful to everyone and liked to tease our kids — once telling them the dinner he served us was blackbird. (It was chicken.)
Tom and Marcia had started their own family, and life was good. But an antitrust case that broke up the Ma Bell monopoly had personal consequences : Tom and more than 300 coworkers were laid off.
With a mortgage and two kids under the age of 5, now what?
His financial future was up in the air. But he eventually came up with a firm plan — something, shall we say, concrete.
After lots of research, he wrote a business plan, invested his savings and received a Small Business Administration loan at a 12 percent interest rate.
He found a piece of property near 85th and Blondo Streets, purchased equipment and — a year and a half after losing his job — opened Liberty Concrete on June 1, 1987.
For three decades, customers have been mostly small-job do-it-yourselfers or contractors, buying up to two cubic yards of concrete in small trailers that Liberty provides. (For several years, he also owned large mixing trucks.)
Marcia has kept the books, paid the bills and sent out invoices, in addition to holding her own office jobs. Tom held costs down by learning to do all the mechanical work, as well as welding.
“If I had to pay people to do all that,” he said, “we’d have gone broke.”
Tom has made it a success and maintains an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau. He and Marcia put their son through Creighton Prep and UNO, and their daughter through Duchesne Academy and Loyola University New Orleans.
Still running his business, Tom says there is so much construction in Omaha that this year should be a good one.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 20 percent of small businesses fail in their first year, and 50 percent by their fifth year. Last June 1, Liberty Concrete marked 30 years.
Before that anniversary, the Hernons were planning to celebrate another: 40 years of marriage. They had visited Ireland, but now they were grandparents and decided on one more family trip.
Great. Then again, not everyone gets invited to a formal lunch with the president of a country.
The first lady of Ireland is Sabina Coyne Higgins, and her brother long ago married Tom’s sister Ann, now deceased. (Ann had lived in Omaha but moved back to Ireland.)
With relatives planning a big trip, the first lady sent invitations to a luncheon. Three generations of Hernons, from Ireland and America, gathered at the president’s residence on April 30, a Sunday.
Omahans included the Hernons’ daughter and son-in-law, Shannon and P.J. McNeil, with son Noah and daughter Morgan; and son and daughter-in-law T.J. and Darcy Hernon, with daughter Perrey. (Their son, Reid, 2, stayed home with his other grandma.)
President Higgins, popularly known in Ireland as “Michael D,” was gracious with his time, as was his wife. Darcy Hernon sang two songs, including “Danny Boy.”
The family stayed several hours, a memorable visit for all.
America turns green Saturday and sings Irish songs. Tom will spend the day with his family, recalling the trip of a lifetime — when his little grandson chatted about leprechauns, rainbows and pots of gold with the president of Ireland.