The May 10, 2015, memorial service celebrating the life of Tom Anstrom '04 could give even the most distant stranger an instant understanding of the impact he had on the lives of those around him. From movie clips and political jokes to voice impressions and college and post-college memories, a life taken too soon left a legacy not soon forgotten. Anstrom, 33, died suddenly on April 8 of a heart incident related to a longstanding heart condition. Most of his friends at Davidson College and later, in his work life, had no idea he had ever had health problems, as he had lived such an active life.
John Wertheimer, Anstrom's Davidson adviser and one of his professors, wrote to Anstrom's parents, Decker Anstrom and Sherry Hiemstra:
"‘Democrats, politics, history, sports.' That was how Tom identified himself to me on the first day of class during his first year at Davidson. That was Tom. He was a terrific student of history, not because he was smart and a good writer, although he was, but rather because he cared so deeply about the world around him and was always on the lookout for new ways to do the right thing."
The fact that a professor would, more than 10 years after a student's graduation, remember that student so clearly and reach out to his family struck Anstrom's parents as an example of the special relationship between Davidson students and their professors. They have also been struck by the exceptional bond between their son and the friends he made at Davidson and kept long after college.
Anstrom's friends and classmates, who miss his sense of humor, commitment, intelligence and love of history, politics, baseball and pop culture, wanted to remember him in a special way. They are making sure that happens by setting up an internship fund in his memory at Davidson. The fund will provide assistance to students-particularly those with financial need-who want to take advantage of internship opportunities in public policy, progressive politics and social justice, the greatest passions of Anstrom's life.
Mark Murray '04 and Matt Legato '04, who are leading the charge with input and advice from many others, including Lindy Baldwin Fulford '04 and Alex Massengale '04, say their friend was the person they went to for advice on voting and many other subjects-and the glue that held their group together after graduation.
"One of the first things that struck me about Tom was how passionate he was about serving those less fortunate through politics," said Legato, Tom's roommate during their freshman, sophomore and senior years. "He deeply believed that fostering equal opportunity in the here and now was the key to a better world."
Though Anstrom and Legato both came to Davidson from the Washington, D.C., area, and they shared an interest in making the world a better place, they also came with different ideas on how to make that happen.
"I came to Davidson with this idea that politics was nothing but pointless bickering, and that learning and applying economic principles was the solution to the world's problems," said Legato. "Tom saw politics as the key, and economics as pointless theorizing. Over time, we learned how one another's ideas were relevant, and we influenced each other. He really appreciated the perspectives other people had to bring, and I've benefited so much from his."
Murray and Anstrom lived on the same freshman hall but didn't become close until their junior year, something Murray can't believe didn't happen sooner.
"When we finally got to know each other, I was so impressed by his political knowledge and political mind, and how exceptional he was at explaining why he believed the things he believed," said Murray. "He trusted so deeply in the power of the political process to make life better for the down-trodden. He was passionate without being pedantic or condescending, and people who were not politically inclined became more involved because of Tom's passion."
"It was easy to be friends with him," said Murray. "He had an amazing sense of humor and great taste in music, movies and TV. I think I spent hours trying-and failing-to stump him with baseball trivia. But my biggest takeaway was always this: Tom was very loyal, very close. I honestly cannot remember one time he turned down an opportunity to spend time with his friends. His mindset was always, ‘If we can get together, why wouldn't we?'"
Anstrom's passion for history and politics turned into his career path. At Davidson, he was a member of the Young Democrats, participated in the Davidson in Cambridge program, and was proud to meet Congressman John Lewis, one of his heroes. Immediately after college, he worked in Charlotte and in Cabarrus County, N.C., on the Presidential Campaign of John Kerry. In 2005, he worked in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia on Tim Kaine's successful race for Governor. After managing several other successful campaigns in Hampton Roads, he moved to the Washington, D.C., area and worked in several capacities to elect progressive politicians across the country, including, most recently, as a political analyst with The Atlas Project, which provides research and analysis of issues for use by progressive campaigns and organizations.
In February 2015, Anstrom had begun his first term as a Commissioner of Advisory Neighborhood Commission C-3, serving his neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
"I told him it was wonderful that the guy who had worked behind the scenes on so many campaigns was finally giving public service a try himself," said Murray.
Anstrom's parents have been strengthened by the outpouring of support from their son's Davidson family and by his friends' determination to honor him.
"This group has remained very close, and it's quite remarkable," said Hiemstra. "They captured, with the internship fund, something that would have been very meaningful to Tom."
Murray and Legato reached out to 15-20 Davidson friends across the country to gather ideas on how they should celebrate Tom's life while creating opportunities for others.
"Within days of learning about Tom's death, they went through a very thoughtful process to identify ways to honor Tom's memory," said Hiemstra. "What a statement about Davidson, too-the values of the college and the education they received there contributed to their ideas and the way they went about designing this program to honor their friend."
Several of Anstrom's friends, including Murray and Legato, will serve as members of the internship fund selection committee. Their commitment not only to setting up the fund but also to participating going forward is meaningful to Anstrom's parents, as well. They know his friends will bring to the selection process the knowledge of the types of people and opportunities their son would have hoped would get support and encouragement.
"It's our hope and Tom's friends' hope that there will be students who, because of this opportunity, decide to pursue careers that give them the chance to try to change the world and make a difference," said Anstrom. "That would be very consistent with Tom's experiences and interests."
The couple have committed to match what is raised for the fund-something they are clear to say is the effort of Anstrom's friends. It already has attracted gifts and pledges of more than $260,000.
"The significance of what has been raised is that the first student, or students, will be able to receive a stipend for an internship in the summer of 2016," said Anstrom. "How many parents get to see something like this develop? We knew how special Tom was, but it's wonderful to know that so many others felt that way, too."
"We hope this effort is somewhat healing to his friends," said Hiemstra. "It certainly is to us. We were very fortunate to be his parents, and he was fortunate to have such great friends."
The formal description of the fund is as follows:
Established in memory of Tom Anstrom '04, the Tom Anstrom Internship Fund has been endowed by Tom's classmates, friends, and family to honor and advance his passion for public service, social justice, and human and civil rights. Through his life and work in Washington, D.C., and the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, Tom gained an appreciation for how progressive efforts in politics could make a positive difference. The Tom Anstrom Internship Fund, provided through the Center for Career Development, has a $5,000 grant available each summer for Davidson students interested in progressive public policy, politics, or social justice.
Anyone interested in contributing to the Tom Anstrom Internship Fund can give online, specifying the fund name as the designation, or contact Annie Porges '85, senior major gifts officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-894-2395.