James Morrissey, owner of two successful bars in New York City, fondly recalls his first mentor in the Big Apple, Tom Moran, the giant of the Irish American community who passed away on August 12.
It was New York in 2012. I was 26 and trying to set up a business in a city that can be as lonely as it is lively.
My excitement levels had diminished, most cold calls and emails were unanswered, and I was tempted to forget about my dream in this intimidating city.
Then my phone rang. It was a man called Ed Kenney, his message short and succinct.
"See you at Smith & Wollensky at 12:30 p.m. sharp. Tell them at the door that you are a guest of Tom Moran and Ed Kenney," he said. "And wear a blazer.”
Arriving at the famous New York steakhouse, the place was packed with lunchtime power players dressed in pinstripe suits. A formal setting, the voices were loud, and waiters ran trolleys of steaks bigger than I had ever seen.
I couldn't help but notice music playing. It was Van Morrison. It became louder as I got to the table. Arriving at a large table of six businessmen, I was relieved to see Ed's warm smile greet me at the table.
Tom Moran sat in the corner smiling in silence, listening to Van the Man's “Sweet Thing,” bellowing from his own personal Bluetooth sound system placed beside him at the table. It was clear that he was in a zone and did not want to be interrupted as the song played through.
The moment was surreal. The restaurant was full of movers and shakers who watched each other’s every move and here was the best table in the house, disregarding every formality in a way that was uniquely respectful. The music was blaring, yet nobody found it offensive, because the master of ceremony was as humble and gentle as they come.
Arrogance was not in Tom’s DNA. He had a wonderful warmth about him.
This was Tom Moran, chairman of Mutual of America, chairman of Concern Worldwide, power player in the peace process, friend of Ireland.
As lunch went on, Tom showed a genuine and encouraging interest in why I was in New York and gravitated towards my ambition that maybe I could make a dream to set up my own business in Manhattan a reality.
"If New York is where you want to be, James, we will take care of you,” he said.
Tom regaled me stories about his dealings with Albert Reynolds and Gerry Adams, and his conversations with Bill Clinton and George Mitchell. His message -- if you believe in something, do it.
I remember hearing years previously that when David Irvine, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, died suddenly at a young age, his family specifically requested that Tom attend his funeral, willing to change the funeral arrangements to accommodate his business schedule and flights from New York.
Ed Kenney told stories of his days in the FBI before joining Mutual of America to work with Tom, making regular visits to Ireland, staying at the Shelbourne and meeting up with longstanding friends, including publican Dan McGrattan.
Not wanting to overstay my welcome (and thinking he would be impressed that I had meetings to go to...), I turned to Tom and said I should probably leave as I had an afternoon meeting nearby. He responded by taking out his phone and showing me a picture of himself at a lunch from the previous week, sitting beside President Obama and Cardinal Dolan.
"Do you think I would have left this lunch before it was over?" he asked. "Cancel your calendar, this is how we do lunch in New York.”
I inquired about Tom’s work with Concern Worldwide, and he recounted details about the wonderful people he had met on humanitarian visits. As he did, his wonderfully expressive face would change, and he would take temporary leave of eye contact as his eyes welled with the tears of a wonderfully emotional Irishman.
I left that unforgettable lunch buoyed. There and then I knew that New York was the right place for me.
From that day on, Tom Moran was part of my New York.
The following year I opened my first bar, The Late Late Bar & Spirit Grocer on Manhattan's Lower East Side. It was a daunting and challenging experience.
Tom and Ed told me I had to have an office. They gave me one on New York's Park Avenue. The level of selfless encouragement and wisdom was amazing, and it was with great pride that I became a friend of Tom’s.
My phone rang late one night. Private caller ID. "James, it’s Tom. I am down in your neighborhood in the Lower East Side. I am on my way to get a tattoo and thought I might call into the Late Late on my way home.”
Tom was a thoughtful, gentle soul who excelled to be New York's best-loved Irish American businessman. A captain of his industry, serving as president and CEO of the Forbes 500-ranked Mutual of America, he kept a level of humility and respect for others which was truly unique. Serving his time as a taxi driver in New York in his early days, he never forgot where he came from and was always motivated by trying to bring a smile to those less fortunate.
There are very few people outside of my family who have been so selfless in their support of me in New York. Wiser older individuals like Tom Moran have so much to offer young people who have a willingness to learn.
Tom could have taught a class in the education of life. He was a very special man who will be so fondly missed by his wife Joan, many of all ages, on both sides of the Atlantic. May he rest in peace.