In the mid-eighties, Tom Dick and other hawkwatchers were counting hawks at Tussey Mountain in Bedford County, Pennsylvania about 50 miles south of what is currently called Tussey Mountain Hawk Watch. They were searching all over the Bedford/Somerset County landscape for places where hawks were flying. Naturally, the ridges were the best areas. However, the land was always owned by someone else, meaning that there was the possibility of getting kicked off the property. And that is what happened. After going through this process a few times, Tom was ready to take action.
Tom regularly visited one of his childhood neighbors from Johnstown, Colonel Gage, whose cottage was adjacent to the property of what is now known as the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch. The views were spectacular, and Tom had noticed that the hawks were traveling through this western part of the flyway. When the adjacent property came up for sale, Tom bought it.
He excitedly wrote to his birding constituents of the Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society (APAS), which he founded a few years earlier. This letter was later reprinted in the Chickadee Chatter, the official newsletter of the APAS, both around 1997 and just recently before his passing. In the letter, Tom stated that the 6-acre property was situated on the edge of the Allegheny Plateau, with the overlook giving excellent views of the raptors as they migrated. The point of the letter was to find hawkwatchers who were willing to count. He explained that several members were needed and that they could choose their preferred days. The goal was to count every day of the migration season.
Directions to the lookout were given in the newsletter as was the combination to the gate that was at the road access. He then gave his address and phone number for anyone who was interested in hawkwatching or just needed a weather update, stating that he and his wife Sally were up by 5:30 a.m. each morning. During this time, Tom was also getting insurance on the land and devising plans for how to clear the site for hawk viewing, all while trying to keep its magical feel. In these early days, talk also centered around making a platform or an elevated deck to help spot the birds. The idea was soon dropped due to legal and financial considerations.
With lots of charisma and maybe a bit of charm, Tom soon had a small army of volunteers helping to make the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch what it is today…a place of beauty, peace, and a great spot to count migrating raptors. This does not mean that everything was smooth sailing or that Tom was a pushover…he was not! Tom could and would fight with anyone, from neighbors to the energy companies. Anything that impeded raptor flight, or the counting of these birds, was fair game. Several legal battles were fought to keep the wind industry from putting turbines along these ridges, a place that has been verified to have a large concentration of migrating Golden Eagles.
Tom led the way for conserving the Allegheny Mountains not just by his lip service, but also his wallet. Legal fees and legal fights cost money, enough to where most people would simply accept the bitter outcome. But not Tom! He organized and he won. Not just on the legal front, but also with the community. He gained the reputation of being a strong advocate for the locals, the land, and the ecosystem.
Describing Tom as an environmentalist is much too simple. He was an independent thinker and often cited the science instead of his opinions. But again, that does not mean he did not have opinions…he did, and he could voice them. Tom seemed to be caught between having grandiose visions and being grounded to reality. This might be explained by his training as a veterinarian, where helping people with their animals some days made him into a healer, while other days as someone who ultimately ended suffering.
Breathing life back into the old is a trick that medicine men were known to do. Tom did this metaphorically when he reincarnated an old and dilapidated farm into what is now known as Dunnings Creek Wetlands. This mecca for wildlife is one of the great success stories of conservation in Pennsylvania. It came about because Tom ponied up and took control of the land in a joint agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture. In what has become normalized as a contract between the Federal government and private landowners, this radical idea of creating a marshland in the middle of Pennsylvania was anything but a sure thing decades ago. Even the neighbors were skeptical of this idea, but after seeing the conversion from a wasteland into one of the most pristine marshlands that was attracting species not seen before in this area, Tom’s legend grew as fast as the native flora. Volunteers were now planting buttonbush along the banks of the dozen or so pools that were now hosting waterfowl, amphibians, and reptiles.
Tom always seemed to be ahead of everyone, including signing up for the new HawkCount.org, which at the turn of the century, was the new method for entering data into Hawk Migration Association of North America’s (HMANA’s) database. Tom made the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch the fifth hawk watch site to register. As HawkCount became more popular, the Allegheny Front was always the default on the website since the listings were alphabetized. And if you looked at the Official Counter at the Allegheny Front, you would often see the name Tom Dick. He continued taking a day of the week at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch up until just a few years ago.
My time at the Allegheny Front started in 2009, but it was some years before I really spoke with Tom. Most of my knowledge of him came from others at the hawk site. Everyone had a story about Tom, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but usually centered on wildlife. Of course, there were those that disagreed or had different ideas than Tom, but he was the undisputed leader. When Tom made a decision or a ruling…that is what it was going to be. He was the founder of the Audubon chapter, the landowner and primary overseer of both the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch and the Dunning’s Creek Wetlands, which was a job he took to heart. When issues of convenience butted against what was best for the environment…the environment always took precedence. Everyone knew the way Tom thought! That gave the organization, the properties, and the hawk counting stability.
In the middle part of the last decade, as I began my ascent in both HMANA and Audubon, Tom and I worked more closely. Tom was enthusiastic about my new roles. Partially because he and so many of the other founders had been working so hard for so long that it was nice to have someone younger, enthusiastic, and dedicated coming in and taking over. Despite his age, Tom was still in great shape. He was still running miles each day and conducting bird surveys, especially down at the wetlands. Up until a few years ago, Tom was still an active hawk counter. But it seemed to be getting harder and harder for him. While his body was still in its prime, his mind was beginning to struggle.
It should go without saying that when I say Tom Dick, I really mean Tom and Sally, for his wife was an integral part of everything that happened with the hawk watch and the Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society. Over the last few years, most of my conversations with the Dick’s were with Sally, whose genuineness and kindness were steadfast. She spoke more and more for Tom and eventually passed the torch to her son Chris, who is now a very active board member of the Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society and is the acting steward of the land. Some have said that Chris reminds them of Tom when he was younger. I think this is so because Chris is bright, good natured, and concerned with keeping the properties perpetually protected, mirroring what I had always heard about his dad.
My memories of Tom are blended with the tails that I heard about him as well as from a couple of old videotapes that captured the younger Tom, who was always smiling and making sure everyone was happy. Even the older Tom would sometimes scold me for taking my duties too seriously, saying, “It’s about having fun…stop being so serious about all of this.” These were interesting words coming from a man who took being a guardian of the environment earnestly. But that is the conundrum of Tom, and maybe all of us…it is hard to pin any of us down to our essential being. I wrote a chapter of a hawkwatching book about Tom, titling it “Tom—The Zen Master.” When people read it, they said that they learned things about Tom that they did not know before. And that title is apt because Tom was so layered that he was difficult to characterize. But if I had to, I think it would be as a man who loved nature and was willing to dedicate his existence towards protecting it in any way possible.
Tom died the day before the annual picnic of the Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society, which was held on July 31, 2022. The death was unexpected. The society always holds its annual in-person meeting before eating lunch. Before we began the meeting, I gathered everyone’s attention and started by announcing to those who had not heard, that Tom had passed. As I did, something else unexpected happened…I lost my voice and had to restart. I had great respect for Tom and spoke with him about important matters. I guess I underestimated how much he actually meant to me as someone else who is passionate and dedicates time to preserving nature. From the correspondence that I am getting from other serious individuals in other organizations, I have a feeling that many others also feel this way about Tom.
Tom Dick’s legacy is set as a hawkwatcher, a conservationist, and a powerful force for the environment. He will be missed, but those who have been influenced by him will carry on his vision.
Brian M. Wargo, Ph.D.
President – Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society
Data Committee Chair – Hawk Migration Association of North America