St. Pius community comes together after cadet’s death

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A tragic accident in which an Army cadet from St. Louis died after rescuing a drowning swimmer off a Long Island beach brought a grieving community together and led to the founding of a scholarship in his name.

The Cadet Thomas Surdyke Leadership Scholarship is an endowed fund through the Roman Catholic Foundation of Eastern Missouri that will benefit students from Surdyke's alma mater, St. Pius X High School in Festus. The scholarship was started by retired Lt. Col. Michael Horsey, who is friends with the Surdyke family, as a way to support students who demonstrate outstanding character and leadership ability. Horsey started it as a GoFundMe site immediately following Surdyke's death on June 28.

An event celebrating Surdyke's life will be held Friday, July 22, with a reception at 6 p.m. and memorial service at 7 p.m. at the Lexington Inn, 1200 West Gannon Drive in Festus. In lieu of flowers, people are asked to contribute to the memorial fund. He will be remembered at a Mass at 11 a.m. Sunday, July 31, at the Church of Our Lady, 1550 St. Mary's Lane in Festus. A funeral Mass was celebrated at West Point, N.Y., July 4, the day Surdyke would have turned 19.

The Army Times reported that Surdyke was on vacation on June 24 when a civilian he had met that day was pulled out to sea in a riptide.

Surdyke, son of Timothy and Janice Surdyke, was posthumously received the Soldier's Medal, the highest non-combat valor award in the Army, for saving a life with actions that ultimately cost his own. "Without regard for his own safety, Cadet Surdyke immediately grabbed the civilian and physically assisted in keeping the civilian's head above water until help could arrive," his Soldier's Medal citation reads. "Before becoming overcome by exhaustion, Cadet Surdyke managed to push the civilian up, enabling a bystander on a paddle board to pull him out of the water, thereby saving the civilian's life."

A prayer vigil was organized by Surdyke's classmates from St. Pius' class of 2015, who approached Father Edward Nemeth, president/CEO of the school, immediately after hearing the news. "They felt that is was only right that we hold the service at the football field flagpole which was Tom's Eagle Scout project," Father Nemeth said, noting that 700 people were in attendance, including several media outlets, the Festus Fire Department and the River Trails District of the Boy Scouts.

"Tom's family has deep roots in our school; Tom is a third-generation legacy. I think the service was very important because it gave his friends a chance to grieve and begin to have closure," Father Nemeth said. "Tom's accident was so sudden and so far away from home that there is this sense of shock among his friends, especially given the fact that he was buried at West Point."

Father Nemeth said Surdyke had a great intellect, a real, true faith, and he would not hesitate to stand up for what his faith taught. "Tom was a great competitor who strived to push his teammates to be better all the time. I remember coaching him in football and seeing this complete disdain for losing. He was a very vocal leader of his team and had a great ability to take the younger players under his wing as a mentor."

He also was quite the character when it came to school spirit. He was always the first to dress up on various theme days for homecoming or Medieval Week. "You could always count on him to go 'all in' with whatever the class was going to do that week," Father Nemeth said.

Surdyke is referred to as a hero for his efforts to save the swimmer. "Hero gets labeled on many people who have a tragic end to their life," the high school president said. "However, in Tom's case it is very true. Had Tom not put the life and welfare of the other swimmer ahead of his own he would still be here today. Not a single person I've encountered is surprised that Tom would have acted this way."

As he met many of Surdyke's friends while at West Point for his funeral, Father Nemeth was struck by how much they loved and respected him because he constantly gave his all to everything he did and for everyone around him. "Tom's instinct to sacrifice himself for the other person is a testament to several realities: a solid upbringing in his family, his training as a soldier and his love. We hear the word love thrown around carelessly, but the love that Tom showed is the love that Christ showed to the world; it is a love that is self-giving even to the point of death."

He made the Dean's List both semesters that he attended West Point. 

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