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Hidden Heroes
Tom DeBella – running toward life
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Tom DeBella and Joshua Taylor are partners in an October marathon that will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
TIERRA VERDE – Tom DeBella has been striding from one goal after another since he was in high school. A philanthropist in the true sense of the word, he dedicates himself to giving professions and charitable causes.

Yet, it’s only recently that he’s lacing up his running shoes and taking to the road.

“I’ve only been running for two months,” said the 60-year-old Realtor. “I work out on a regular basis and enjoy racquetball. I watch what I eat and drink plenty of water. In fact, I’m probably in better shape than I was 20 years ago. But running – well, I haven’t done anything like this since I ran track in high school. I’m 60 years old. My 90-year-old mother thinks I’m crazy!”

The reason for DeBella’s newfound racing routine is 10-year-old Joshua Taylor of Clearwater. Joshua has leukemia and Tom will run for him during the LaSalle Bank 26.3-mile marathon in Chicago Oct. 11. The marathon is a fund-raiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

“I never thought about running again until I heard about this. But, when I found out about the race, I was in. I’ve lost family members to leukemia. It just breaks your heart to see someone this young with the disease,” he said.

Adopting a cause and racing toward it is nothing new for DeBella. The New York native trained as an optometrist in his home state.

“An optometrist is like a pharmacist to a doctor. We fill prescriptions and fit glasses and contacts,” he said.

After a stint in the U.S. Army during Vietnam, he moved to Florida and practiced in his field.

“In the ’70s I was working with Dr. Ruth Winston Cope,” he said. “She’s really an unsung hero. What a wonderful person. She used to travel to India to operate on people who needed her help.”

Perhaps it was that experience that led to DeBella’s next philanthropic goal.

“I retired and stayed home for awhile. Pretty soon I got tired of cutting the grass and getting in my wife’s way. So, I went into commercial real estate. I did that from 1979 to 1987. Next I sold that business and went into the interocular lens business.”

DeBella said those years with the Suncoast Medical Group in Largo were the most fulfilling of his life.

“I was director of international sales. We made interocular lenses – the same type of lens used for cataract patients,” he said. “We were a small company and could make them for less. We traveled all over the world, and the doctors saved the sight of hundreds of thousands of people in third world countries.”

One special patient sticks out in DeBella’s mind.

“An Indian doctor came up to us. He was holding hands with an elderly woman. It turned out that she was his mother. She was about 100 years old. He said to us, ‘She wants to thank you for allowing her to see again.’ That was great,” he said.

Suncoast Medical was bought out in 1998, and DeBella returned to the real estate field and is based in Tierra Verde. Like many fellow baby boomers, retirement isn’t in his vocabulary. He said he’d like to keep working for about 10 years, then take six months a year off to travel. He’ll keep working for good causes too.

“I intend to keep running after the marathon,” he said. “In fact, I’ll keep working for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and other charitable groups. I look at it this way. You only have so much time on this earth. Use it to help other people and make your mark. When you strive to only accumulate things you end up leaving them behind for other people to fight over. Accumulate good deeds instead.”
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