Uniondale, N.Y. — Msgr. Thomas Hartman, half of TV and radio's "God Squad" and the longtime head of the Diocese of Rockville Centre's Telecare cable TV station, died Feb. 16 of complications from Parkinson's disease, from which he had been suffering since 1999. He was 69.
A funeral Mass was scheduled for Feb. 20 at St. Aidan Church in Williston Park, his boyhood parish, followed by burial at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury.
Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre said Hartman was "a good and holy priest" of the diocese who "touched many lives, healed many hearts and used his considerable gifts to bring people to a deeper sense of God in their lives."
He credited the priest for making Telecare "into a nationally recognized leader in Catholic television."
In recent years, Hartman "lived a long Calvary because of Parkinson's disease, which over time left him bedridden," Bishop Murphy said in a statement. "Through it all even to these last days, he remained serene because his trust was always in the Lord who loved him and now welcomes him into his eternal home."
Hartman was the Catholic half of "The God Squad" with Rabbi Marc Gellman. The two met during an appearance on a Long Island cable news program about the links between Easter and Passover. They appeared regularly on ABC's "Good Morning America" as well as shock jock Don Imus' syndicated radio program.
In 1998, Hartman said one of the "Good Morning America" segments he remembered most fondly was on lying. "We're living in a culture in which it's difficult to trust anyone,'' he said. Another favorite involved going to a playground to speak to children about their faith life. The priest said he remembered one child asking, "Can my pet fish pray, because his flippers aren't big enough?"
"The God Squad" made its debut on Cablevision, which served Long Island, then made its way to Telecare. The show put Telecare on the map; in 2010, Telecare was picked up by Cablevision to serve all its homes beyond the New York metropolitan area. The series had earlier been picked up by cable's Faith & Values Channel, later known as Odyssey (now the Hallmark Channel).
The pair also made up to 150 speeches a year in their heyday in the late 1990s, wrote several books together, won four Emmy Awards for their TV work, and received a Peabody Award for an HBO animated special based on their children's book "How Do You Spell God?" In the 2000s, they took their joint show on the road to cable news outlets CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. They also were featured on the PBS series "Life 360" and introduced a festival of religious film classics on Turner Classic Movies.
Ordained in 1971, Hartman was recruited to assist a New York television station with its coverage of St. John Paul II's 1979 visit to New York City.
He took over Telecare in 1981 from a priest who was leaving ordained ministry and had recommended him for the job. It was a job he held for 24 years until Parkinson's took too great a toll on his health.
Once he went public with the diagnosis in 2003, Hartman started a foundation to raise money to find a cure for Parkinson's, often working with other high-profile Parkinson's victims, including the Rev. Billy Graham and actor Michael J. Fox. A 2006 fundraising dinner featuring actors Susan Lucci and Brian Dennehy drew more than 1,400 people and raised about $1 million.
Hartman had done the same the decade prior for those afflicted with AIDS. When his brother Gerard died from AIDS in 1995, he raised $6 million and helped establish Christa House in Uniondale, a hospice for AIDS sufferers.
In 2004, Hartman was honored by the Tri-State Catholic Committee on Radio and Television, which serves the New York metropolitan area, for his ministry as a "priest communicator." By then, he had noticed that Parkinson's was weakening his throat muscles, causing trembling in his hands and walking with a limp, and despite a daily regimen of exercise and 28 pills a day, he was exhausted at the end of the day.
In a joint appearance with Gellman at a 1999 conference of pro-life leaders in Washington, Hartman said collaboration, not competition, was needed in the pro-life arena. "Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. Sticks alone can be broken by a child," he told them, noting how easy it is to see competition flourish "in church organizations, even in right-to-life [groups]." Organizations promoting life should be "not monuments to ourselves," he added, "but monuments to God's gift of life."
According to the Long Island newspaper Newsday, Gellman, soon after that initial meeting with Hartman, confided to the priest he had an offer with a Florida synagogue and was heading home to make a phone call accepting the offer. The rabbi recalled Hartman telling him, "You're not going to Florida," because the priest had had a dream the night before in which God told him to "tell the guy you're with that I'm not through with him there, where he is." Rabbi Gellman turned down the job, and "The God Squad" was born the next day.
Thomas J. Hartman was born May 22, 1946, in the Jamaica neighborhood of the New York borough of Queens.
In 1970, he received a master of divinity degree from Our Lady of Angels Seminary in Albany and a doctor of ministry degree from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, California, in 1979. His early pastoral assignments in the Rockville Centre Diocese included serving as a priest at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Elmont and a chaplain for the Nassau County Police Department.
Hartman is survived by his mother, a brother, and three sisters. His family requested that donations be made to the Thomas Hartman Center for Parkinson's Research at Stony Brook University.