Thomas Reginald Joseph Irvine

Ostracized as a child because of his weight, he fought hard to bring it under control, exercising no matter how bad the weather

Thomas Reginald Joseph Irvine

Illustration by Ian Phillips

Thomas Reginald Joseph Irvine was born on Sept. 29, 1971, to Reg and Judy Irvine in the German city of Lahr. “I was in the infantry, a ground-pounder,” says Reg, who served in the Canadian Forces for almost four decades. His wife, Judy, was a homemaker, caring for Thomas and his brother Jeffrey, who was older by four years. “I told her when I married her, ‘You will never work. You will be a mother to my boys,’ ” Reg says. “She raised them with love.” While Reg was stationed in Germany, he and Judy would travel when they could to see more of Europe. “We went to Venice, to Amsterdam, to Italy, and to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower,” Reg says. “It was an education.” Thomas and Jeffrey were too young to remember these trips when they got older, but the family took photos “so we could show them, years later,” Reg says. “They couldn’t believe they’d been there.”

In 1976, Reg was stationed to Petawawa, Ont., and moved back to Canada with his family, “and that’s where the problems began.” At just five years old, Thomas’s weight was ballooning out of control. He was teased mercilessly everywhere he went: “in school, in restaurants, at the Ottawa Exhibition, at the War Museum,” Reg says. “I was never [home] that much. My wife spent hours talking to his teachers, and took him out of school. It was the worst a child could go through. You don’t know what it’s like, when somebody’s humiliated so bad—he’d come home crying, upset with the whole world. It was a scar on his mind, to be treated like that.”

In 1982, Reg was posted to the military base in Gagetown, N.B., and the family moved again. Even in their new home, Thomas was cruelly mocked and ostracized for his size. His weight had reached nearly 400 lb. “One day, when he was 11 or 12, I sat down with him, man to man,” Reg recalls. “I said, ‘We’re going to beat it.’ I said, ‘I’m in the army, and my job is physical training.’ So I took him down to the bottom of the hill. It’s a [steep] incline, and six miles from home. And I said, ‘I’ll see you at home, you know where it is.’ And when he arrived, two or three hours later, he was soaking wet from top to bottom. Of course, we were worried. And I said, ‘He ain’t gonna quit.’ And he never quit, he never did.”

Thomas started diligently exercising. He got into the habit of running up to 25 km every single day, “night, rain or snow,” Reg says proudly, a daily ritual he never, ever missed. He meticulously watched what he ate. And when he was 16 years old, he dropped 175 lb. “They couldn’t recognize him,” Reg says. “At the end of the school year, the teacher was going to give him a trophy. And he said to the teacher politely, ‘I don’t take trophies.’ ” Despite the weight loss, though, Thomas remained a solitary person. “He had very few friends,” Reg says, and never married or had kids. He stuck close to his parents and his brother, and lived with Reg and Judy his entire life. He devoted himself to hobbies: Thomas loved Jim Morrison and the music of the Doors. He collected videos, especially military movies, that eventually numbered in the thousands. His favourite food was his mother’s homemade meatballs.

After high school, Thomas got a job as a cleaner for the Department of National Defence. In late 1994, heading into work, he fell and broke his hip. The doctor told him he wouldn’t be able to run again, “so he started walking,” Reg says. He’d go for walks that often lasted over three hours. He was always careful to dress for the weather, and walked facing traffic so he’d stay visible. “I’d say, ‘It’s pouring rain, it’s freezing out,’ but he wanted to go,” Reg says. “He’d say, ‘No, I’m doing it on my own, dad.’ ”

In 1998, Reg retired and the family moved to Smiths Falls, Ont., his hometown. Thomas got a job working security, “but he was laid off four years ago, when the economy went down,” Reg says. Thomas kept up with his routine. He made friends on Facebook, connecting with other Jim Morrison fans, and spent time with his brother and parents. He carried on with his daily walks. Thomas didn’t get to know many people in Smiths Falls, but they knew him, even if they never learned his name. “He’d go for a walk and people would wave to him, and he’d wave back, and give them the thumbs up.”

On the evening of Jan. 15, Thomas was out for a walk, wearing fluorescent clothing and walking toward oncoming traffic to stay visible. At 8 p.m. he was struck by a drunk driver, and later died in hospital. Thomas was 40 years old.