Thomas Nelson Pesola was not supposed to be born. His parents, Jeannette (Nan) Wiinikka Pesola and Wiljo (Bill) Sakri Pesola, were told they would not be able to have children. Therefore, when “the miracle baby” arrived in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, on August 18, 1949, it marked the first of many instances in which Tom would pleasantly surprise people by overcoming the odds stacked against him.
Tommy, as he was called when he was younger, grew up in Ashby, Massachusetts. His paternal grandparents, Sakri and Elina Pesola, bequeathed a 40-acre plot of land to Bill and Nan on which they planned to build a house. Tommy’s father built a garage as a temporary form of shelter for the family to live in while he built their dream house. Unfortunately, Bill’s alcoholism so debilitated him that he never got around to constructing the house, and it was the garage that Tommy called home.
Despite their modest abode, the Pesolas were a proud family with “sisu” (pronounced see’-soo), a Finnish characteristic that roughly translates as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. The Wiinikkas, Tommy’s maternal grandparents, and the Pesolas carried this trait with them when they emigrated from Finland to the United States in the early 1900s, determined to succeed in their new country. Both families valued education highly and believed it was an integral ingredient to success; in fact, in 1909, before they married, both Hilja and Ilmari Wiinikka donated $10 each (equivalent to about $237 in today’s money) to support Suomi College, a higher education institution in Michigan started by Finnish immigrants (this school is now known as Finlandia University). The belief in the value of education was passed down to Nan and Bill, both of whom graduated high school. Shortly after high school, Bill enlisted in the army and went to fight in World War II, and Nan took a job working in a factory. This post is by helpsmaster.com
After Tommy arrived, the Pesolas did the best they could to care for him. Although Bill’s alcoholism limited him in many ways, Nan was always around to take care of her son, and she sacrificed so that he could have decent clothes and meals. However, growing up without a bathroom (just an outhouse), no hot water until he was 12, and no telephone until he was 14 led Tommy to live in a world filled with shame. He would often go into the woods with his dog, Betsy, just to get away from the house and think about how he would extricate himself from Ashby. Tommy’s father always told him that no one could belittle a man with an education, so it was clear to Tommy early on that a college education would be his way out.
Tommy excelled in school and had excellent teachers who led him down the right path. He was involved in many activities, particularly athletics. He played on his high school’s basketball team for three years and served as team captain, and he pitched for Ashby High’s baseball team for four years. In addition, he was the president of his high school’s National Honor Society, and he served as class treasurer for three years. He also served as an editor for the yearbook in which his class named him “most athletic,” “most ambitious,” and “most likely to succeed.”
However, Tommy’s high school experience was not all smooth-sailing. He suffered a major setback in 1965 during his sophomore year when he was diagnosed with Type I diabetes on April Fool’s Day. His family ensured he received proper medical care, and Tommy spent weeks at a time at the Joslin Clinic in Boston learning how to manage his diabetes, which gave him the foundation he needed to take good care of himself and avoid many of the ailments that plague diabetics. He looked forward to his visits to Joslin because being in Boston allowed him to attend some Red Sox games in person instead of just listening to them on the radio. A Boston sports fan with an uncanny ability to recall even the most obscure sports trivia, he treasured these visits to Fenway Park.