‘A servant’s heart’ | State of Missouri recognizes and honors Cadet Thomas Surdyke’s final act of heroism

"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

— John 15:13

State representative Elaine Gannon quoted this Bible verse at a ceremony in which Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens signed into law a bill to the honor the late Thomas Surdyke.

With the governor's signature, USMA Cadet Thomas M Surdyke Memorial Highway officially became the name for a section of Interstate 55 through Festus, a four-mile stretch between exits 170 and 174. The latter is the exit for St. Pius X High School, from which Surdyke graduated in 2015. His parents, Janice and Timothy, also graduated from St. Pius.

His parents, sisters, family, friends and state dignitaries — about 130 people in all — attended the ceremony June 29 at St. Pius, appropriately held next to the field on which he played football and around the flagpole area he designed and built for his Eagle Scout project in the fall of 2014. Classmates gathered at that same spot a year earlier for a prayer service in his honor.

Surdyke died June 28, 2016 — six days short of his 19th birthday and four days after his final act of heroism.

Surdyke laid down his life for a friend — a new friend at that, someone he had met just that day on Cooper Beach in Southhampton, N.Y. On leave after his freshman year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he saved a contemporary — a young man about his age, according to his father — from drowning after a riptide pulled them away from the beach. The young man couldn't swim, so Tom went to his aid, holding his head above water until help arrived. In doing so, he would pay the ultimate price.

"According to the dictionary, a hero is a person noted for courage, courageous acts and nobility of character," Gannon said. "'Hero' represents the best of ourselves. A hero can be anyone who shows courage when faced with a problem. A hero is someone who is willing to help others in his full capacity.

"Tom Surdyke is the best of ourselves, a courageous hero who was willing to help despite the danger to himself. We shall never forget Tom and the wonderful influence he had during his time on earth. He truly was an example of the Christian life and our savior, Jesus Christ."

The Army honored Surdyke's heroism by posthumously awarding him the Soldier's Medal, its highest non-combat valor award. The Soldier's Medal citation states that he saved the man "without regard for his own safety ..."

Back in Festus, no one was surprised by his selfless action, then or now.

"Not at all," agreed Kelley Conway and Ellie Warden, who were among about 20 classmates attending the highway ceremony.

"If he knew the outcome beforehand, the second time around, he'd still do it again," said Conway, who has his photo attached to the visor in her car. "I look at it often. (The highway) is another reminder of how terrific he was to us all."

Classmate and friend Erik Minicky agreed, calling the highway honor "a great way to recognize him. He definitely deserves all of the recognition he's receiving. To save a life in his last moments ... really special."

Gov. Greitens regularly saw such valor in his service as a Navy Seal, young men and women putting someone else's needs about their own.

"One of incredible things about serving in military is you meet so many incredible men and women who step forward and come together to serve a common good," he said after the ceremony. "Tom's an example who should make all of us proud. We should remember, that in a country that is capable of producing the Surdyke family and a family that is capable of producing a young man like Tom Surdyke, we have the reservoir for courage and common sense to meet all of the challenges in front of us."

Greitens met Surdyke at Boys State in 2014; Surdyke sought him out after Greitens spoke to the group.

"I was speaking about how young men can step forward and answer the call to serve each in their own way; whether working in their schools, their communities, their church or the military, they can all find a way to serve," Greitens said. "What was so impressive about Tom, even though he was 17, he had this tremendous commitment to making a difference."

Gannon also had met Surdyke, personally delivering to St. Pius X his appointment to West Point, in spring 2015.

"Tom had a servant's heart, always giving to others before himself, just like he did on that beach in Long Island," Gannon said.

One day, the Surdykes would like to meet the young man whom their son saved that day. They know only his first name; he was on the beach as a camp counselor with other camp counselors.

"That's what Tom's friends told us," Timothy Surdyke said. "They just befriended him on the beach. They were hanging out doing what teenagers do on a beach ... I'd like to find a way to reach out to him and see how he's doing."

The Surdykes have learned about their son's impact in death as an organ donor. Though still anonymous, they've received letters from the individuals who have benefited from transplants.

"People have gotten his lungs, heart, kidneys, pancreas," Tim Surdyke said. "It's wonderful that he's able to do that; such a heroic act ended up saving more lives." 

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