Thomas F. Carey, a longtime resident of Riverside and the patriarch of Hawthorne Race Course, died at the age of 87 in Florida on Dec. 17, 2019.

Carey, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for many years, stepped away from his role as president of Hawthorne Race Course in 2005, when his nephew Tim Carey succeeded him in that role, which he still retains.

“He was the kindest, most generous person I’ve ever known,” said Sue Carey, his wife of 35 years. “He was unassuming, yet he did great things. He was an incredibly good businessman, and everybody who ever worked for him would say the same things.”

While his Scottswood Road home, with its pair of bronze horses on the front lawn, shouts the family’s more than century-old connection to the venerable horse racing venue in Stickney, Carey wasn’t necessarily destined to become its leader and, in many ways, its savior.

Born Nov. 11, 1932, Carey as a young man was a top athlete, playing football at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago before setting off in 1951 to the University of Notre Dame, where he would play quarterback for the Fighting Irish under coach Frank Leahy.

Graduating in 1955 with a degree in business administration, Carey received Notre Dame’s most prestigious student-athlete prize, the Byron V. Kanaley Award, given to him for being “adjudged most exemplary as a student and as a leader of men,” the Chicago Tribune reported.

That August, after graduating from Notre Dame, Carey was on the roster of a college football all-star team which defeated the NFL champion Cleveland Browns 30-27 in front of a crowd of 75,000 people at Soldier Field in what was then a highly anticipated annual exhibition game.

In 1986, Carey told a Chicago Tribune reporter that he’d considered signing a pro football contract with the Chicago Cardinals, but that “I was afraid three years down the pike I’d look back and wish I had a law degree.”

Carey would obtain his law degree from the Northwestern University Law School, but he remained involved in football as a coach from 1956-60 at his high school alma mater, Mount Carmel, which won a city championship during that time.

In the early 1960s, Carey joined the law firm of his father, Robert Carey, who at the time led Hawthorne Race Course, which has been owned by the family since 1904. He told a Tribune reporter that his involvement at Hawthorne Race Course “evolved” over the years, taking the reins as president when Robert Carey died in 1980.

That year marked a literal rebirth for Hawthorne, which had suffered a near knockout blow in 1978, when a fire leveled the race course’s grandstand and clubhouse. 

The Careys rejected a bid by the owner of adjacent Sportsman’s Park to buy the Hawthorne property and, instead, Tom Carey presided over the $16 million reconstruction effort, which included convincing the Stickney Village Board to issue $10 million in industrial development bonds to help Hawthorne obtain a lower interest rate on the debt, which the race course assumed.

The rebuilt Hawthorne Race Course reopened in February 1980 shortly before the death of Robert Carey. Sportsman’s Park, which had sought to buy Hawthorne during its troubles, shut down in 2002 and has since been demolished.

Not too long after, in 1983, Carey bought the Riverside home, where he and Sue Carey have lived and raised their family. She said the home was a good fit because of its close proximity to the race course – Carey previously lived in Park Ridge — but it was more than that.

Riverside’s landscape and village feel reminded Sue Carey of England, where she was raised, and her husband was an inveterate walker, hiking for miles around Riverside daily, even later in his life.

“What kept him alive was the beauty of walking in Riverside,” she said.

A celebration of Carey’s life, which will be held at the family’s home in Riverside, is being planned for next May. Details have not yet been finalized.

“We want to celebrate all of the good things about him,” Sue Carey said.