WILKES-BARRE — Maybe when he was, say, five, Tom Baldino sat in living room and imagined playing pro ball with the Phillies in his childhood home in south Philadelphia.
When he was around 10 he watched Alan Shepard sit solo in a tiny mercury capsule as a Redstone rocket lit up like an 83-foot flare and fired the first American into the ether, and Baldino decided his life belonged to the new frontier of space aeronautics.
By the time he was commuting to La Salle Preparatory High School on the north end of town, he set his sights on teaching history. So how, exactly, did he end up a political science professor for 40-some years, the last 28 at Wilkes University, the job he will leave as he settles into retirement this spring?
“I had a high school mentor who said I ask a lot of questions not typical of a history major,” Baldino recalled. “He suggested I might consider political science.”
Thus he sits in an office lined with scores of books — some of which he admits he never read, others he has loaned out to students. Strewn about the shelves are The Muppet Show’s Statler and Waldorf, the iconic Rocky and Bullwinkle, a map of Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings, palm-size models of space ships from Star Trek and Star Wars, an autographed baseball encased in acrylic, a vista image of the Grand Canyon and a J.S. Bach poster. Classical music wafts in the background.
He dons a sport coat for tie-less photo pose next to the moose and flying squirrel, beaming with a confession that “my wife made me wear it,” and talks of how he got to Wilkes-Barre. No, not in 1991 when he joined this university.
Go back further, to the Vietnam war.
The Beatles “When I’m 64” was a hit, and it really struck when his draft lottery number came up the same two digits. Looking for ways to keep his military fate in his own hands, he enlisted in the Army Reserve, got assigned to a Railroad Transportation Battalion, and found himself sent to Wilkes-Barre in the summer of ’73, to do some recruiting.
“We set up tables and banners at church bazaars on weekends,” he recalled. They also set up at the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Airport, where he met U.S. Rep. Dan Flood, striking in his natty togs, the ubiquitous cane and the trademark handlebar moustache. “He looked like he came out of the old west.”
He saw something else that summer in the Valley with a Heart: recovery from the deluge floods of Hurricane Agnes. “The dirt was gone, but you could still see the damage downtown.” And he caught his first view of another force of destruction: Coal mining.
“I’d say, ‘What’s that black mountain’. ‘Culm’. ‘Oh. What’s culm?’”
The impression was not compelling.
“I was thinking ‘I’ll never come back here.’”
Yet after years teaching at St. Francis University and Juniata College, he did just that. He has served as department chair, raised two children (son is in Honolulu, daughter in Daytona), watched the “local oscillation” of interest in politics (“the student body at Wilkes tends to be more conservative”) and adapted only adequately to rapidly changing technology
“I still make my students submit paper copies. I can read and grade them on the computer. But I have old eyes,” he chuckles.
He also spent much of that time offering opinions to local media regarding hot political topics of the day, from the impact of negative campaigning to the value of letters to the editor, from politicians touting their faith in God to the push to ban gay marriage. He watched the downtown transform with a movie multiplex going up and a canopy coming down (“I liked the canopy”). Students, of course, change, but those he works with remain.
He recalls losing two weeks of work in 2018 due to a family medical emergency. “My colleagues, without hesitation, supported my family and I in so many ways, for which I will be eternally grateful”
Baldino was often the point man in several years of collaborations between the Times Leader and Wilkes for local opinion polls. He saw a referendum on construction of the arena rejected, yet the arena itself built, spurring (as promised) large developments nearby. And he served on the study commission that considered changing Luzerne County’s form of government.
No, not the change approved by voters that went into effect in 2012, the one drafted in 2003 that voters rejected. He has, of course, an opinion on why one failed and the other succeeded, even though both proposals had many similarities.
The 2003 initiative was spawned by corruption allegations primarily contained in and around the County Commissioner positions. The 2012 change came amid a federal probe that led to dozens of pleas and convictions across political boundaries.
Now Baldino talks of volunteering more, riding his trail bike with his wife, traveling free of the constraints of returning to a work schedule, and probably moving just a bit south, closer to his Philadelphia roots. “I don’t see us becoming snowbirds,” he said of those who fly to Florida to escape Pennsylvania winters. “We like having four seasons.”
He takes modest but obvious pride in helping so many students over the decades explore the dense world of politics, recalling the recent (fall, 2018) success of a team of three who took second place in a state competition to draw state district lines. “I couldn’t have been prouder of the team’s effort and how they handled their success.”
You can tell from the nicknacks, the books, and the countless smiles as he talks. Clearly, he retires a man content.
“I’ve been really blessed to do what I wanted to do all these years.”
Wilkes University professor Tom Baldino is retiring at the end of the school year after nearly 30 years with the school.