A Life Well Lived

In Live Like Sean, a New Jersey father reflects on lessons learned from his special-needs son.

 

Father’s Day 2019 was a difficult day for the Nelligan family. Sean Nelligan passed away at the age of 29, leaving his parents, TJ and Maggie, and sisters Meghan and Moira with a profound void they would struggle to fill. Sean was a special-needs child whose intellectual and developmental issues, the Nelligans were told, would keep him from living a meaningful life. As it turned out, Sean packed far more meaning into his 29 years than most of us do in a lifetime.

While composing his son’s eulogy—a collection of heart-warming vignettes he planned to recount at Sean’s memorial service—TJ Nelligan realized that the young man who was unable to read or write had created a legacy of life lessons that he wanted to share. On the day of Sean’s funeral, Nelligan told a room packed with hundreds of friends and loved ones, “Live like Sean every day and you will make the lives of others so much better…and it will make you feel better, also.”

After the service, Steve Adubato, a family friend, suggested to TJ that he consider extending this message to a wider audience by writing a book. Adubato introduced him to Theresa DiGeronimo and together they produced Live Like Sean, published in 2021 by Greenleaf Book Group Press ($19.95).

“When Sean was born we took home what we thought was a perfectly healthy boy,” Nelligan recalls. “Over the first two months he started having leg spasms, which later were determined to be seizures. Over the next two years his development was delayed—it took him a long time to walk, a long time to talk—but I was in denial. I was like, Everything will be fine. A friend connected me to the foremost child neurologist in the world and we went to his office. He took Sean for about an hour and came back and basically told us that our son had intellectual disabilities, that he would never live a normal life…and probably never fit in with normal mainstream society…and that, as he got older, these disabilities would become more pronounced. It was like getting punched in the face, and like Mike Tyson used to say, everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Years of physical therapy and speech therapy followed. The Nelligans learned how to deal with the seemingly endless private and public issues involved in raising a special-needs child. Then, when Sean hit his teen years, something marvelous happened.

“Suddenly he became this amazing personality,” says Nelligan. “He was funny. He was kind. He would laugh at everything. He loved life. He loved sports and, because I worked in college sports marketing, we went to tons of sporting events over the years. I bought Sean an iPad and he memorized all of the college sports logos, which I was amazed by.”

One day, while father and son were watching ESPN and the scores were scrolling across the screen, Sean began telling his dad who was winning each game. What’s going on here, TJ wondered—how could he possibly know all these things? At a Giants game, Sean said, “Giants are winning 7–0…if they score another touchdown it’ll be 14–0.”

“I was like, How does he know that?” Nelligan remembers. “I asked him what seven plus seven was, and he just looked away. That’s what he’d do if he didn’t know the answer to something. He was doing what we called ‘sports math.’”

Special Olympics programs provided Sean with a physical outlet for his interest in sports, and also enabled him to build friendships and camaraderie with his teammates—and he became quite good at basketball. Nelligan was all-in on Special Olympics and ended up spearheading the effort to bring the Special Olympics USA Games to New Jersey in 2014, serving as its Chairman and CEO.

Live Like Sean is, first and foremost, a heartwarming and inspirational story about a life well lived in the face of daunting challenges. It also doubles as an invaluable handbook for families of special-needs children. Its reach, however, extends beyond what one might assume is “baked-in” readership to engage and inform a much wider audience. Hence the book’s title. The authors build their story on a framework that devotes each chapter to a simple, clear life lesson that Nelligan absorbed from his son: Be Present, Be Friendly, Be an Inspiration, etc. Words to live by, for certain.

“One of the most important things Sean taught me—and this was difficult for a guy with a Type-A personality—was to have gratitude,” says Nelligan. “He couldn’t spell gratitude…but he lived it every single day.” Not surprisingly, Chapter One in Live Like Sean is entitled Be Grateful.

Like so many families of special-needs kids, the Nelligans started their journey believing they had to protect Sean and teach him about life. By the time he reached his twenties, they realized he had taught them far more about life than they could ever teach him.

“In the beginning of that journey,” says TJ Nelligan, “you wonder How are we going to live like this? Now that he’s not here…I wonder How can we live without him?”

Editor’s Note: Longtime Montville resident TJ Nelligan is a marketing and sales executive who has worked as a tireless advocate for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He founded (and later sold) Nelligan Sports Marketing and served on the board of New Jersey Special Olympics for more than a decade. He also raised millions of dollars for the Special Olympics New Jersey Sports Complex in Lawrenceville. For more information on Live Like Sean visit tjnelligan.com.

Northern Exposure

A new book shines a light on women in the post-Civil War era.

By Mark Stewart

History is written by the victors, philosopher Walter Benjamin once observed. Why then, Joanne Rajoppi wondered, had no one told the story of northern women in the wake of the Civil War. Rajoppi, whose day job as Union County Clerk gives her a unique appreciation for the power of documents, knew where to find this story: in personal correspondence scattered throughout the country. The result of her three-year research journey is Northern Women in the Aftermath of the Civil War:  The Wives and Daughters of the Brunswick Boys, published by American History Press.      

Rajoppi’s foray into 19th century cultural history began with her previous book, New Brunswick and the Civil War: The Brunswick Boys in the Great Rebellion. 

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“It was based on the 110 letters my great-grandfather wrote home to his mother and sisters,” Rajoppi says. “It told the story of what was happening to him and to his family. After that, I wondered what happened to the women in the North. Many husbands didn’t come home, or came home broken injured. Unless you were wealthy or had an extended family, you could be in a lot of trouble.”

Rajoppi points out that there is plenty of literature on Southern women in the post-Civil War years, but remarkably little on their Northern counterparts. Women’s history from this period in general, she adds, isn’t very well documented. 

“How did women survive? There were no social services,” Rajoppi points out. “My own great-grandmother lost her youngest son in the Civil War and her husband soon after, and was left to care for two daughters, one of whom was epileptic.”

To write Northern Women in the Aftermath of the Civil War, Rajoppi often had to get to the women’s stories by navigating through the men. She never imagined how difficult the research would be, or how far it would take her—both intellectually and geographically. She ended up pouring through archives far afield from New Jersey, with stops in Detroit, Seattle and Los Angeles

“After the war many people moved west, including part of my family,” she explains.  

The writing, Rajoppi says, was the easy part. The research required far more tenacity. The bonus for all the hard work was a deeper understanding of day-to-day challenges and occasional opportunities for women in the second half of the 19th century.  The invention of the typewriter, for example, had a huge impact

“It triggered a substantial change in education,” Rajoppi says. “High school teaching suddenly had a ‘commercial’ track. Middle- and working-class women now had the option to develop office skills, which paid more than factory and domestic work. Office workers made more than most teachers, too.”

Rajoppi says she was also struck by how quickly people died before the development of antibiotics and modern medicine. The poor treatment of the mentally ill hit particularly close to home. For more than a decade after the Civil War, epilepsy was categorized and treated as a form of insanity; some patients were “treated” by being chained. A criminal misunderstanding of mental illness persisted into the 20th century she says, citing the experience of her own grandmother.

“In 1921, she had a breakdown after her husband died and was sent to the New Jersey Lunatic Asylum in Trenton,” Rajoppi says. “The director of the hospital believed that insanity was caused by diseased organs, so he removed them. My grandmother was subjected to an intestinal operation and died within two weeks of sepsis.”

Anyone poking around in family history is likely to meander down some fascinating paths. Rajoppi is quick to add that there were numerous high points in her research—much of it making it into the book, but some of it not. Her favorite research gem?

“I found out my family came over a year after the Mayflower!” 

Editor’s Note: Joanne Rajoppi is a trustee of the Union County Historical Society. Her latest book is available for$21.95 online and in stores.

 

Casting About

One of the most closely held secrets in the world of fishing is that that good fiction on the sport is harder to hook than an Apache Trout. Let’s see…there’s Melville and Hemingway and…yeah, it’s kind of a short list. Whether you’re shopping for yourself or the angler in your life, these books should be at the top of your list.

Looking Through Water

Bob Rich • 2015

A retired Wall Street mogul uses a fishing trip to help his troubled grandson. The author is a fly fishing and open-water fishing expert who also happens to be the head of the Rich Products food company. Proceeds from books sales go to support wounded veterans as part of Project Healing Waters.

 

Gone Fishing

Tamera Will Wissinger • 2013

This one is for younger anglers. A daylong father-son-and-daughter fishing trip unfolds in a novel structured as a series of poems. Fun line drawings and a “poet’s tackle box” at the end of the book are charming bonuses.

 

The Golden Catch

Roger Weston • 2011

As the cover screams, this book is part of the popular Frank Murdoch series. Weston’s action hero, a former CIA assassin, tangles with a Korean mob boss and must employ his skills as a Bering Sea crabber to survive. The author spent many years as a commercial fisherman.

 

Double Whammy

Carl Hiaasen • 1987

Who knew that big-money bass fishing contests had a dark and deadly underbelly? Hiaasen’s hero R.J. Decker learns the hard way, with help from a half-blind hermit with a taste for fresh road kill. Yikes!

 

The River Why

David James Duncan • 1983

A fishing tale wrapped in a coming of age story, The River Why follows the travels of Gus Orviston, who develops a new appreciation for the environment and passion for life. Duncan’s novel is regarded as one of the generation’s best books about the American West.

 

The Old Man and the Sea

Ernest Hemingway • 1952

Was the movie, which earned Spencer Tracy an Oscar nomination, better than the book? What heresy! The story of an aging Cuban fisherman in an epic battle with a marlin was the last big novel published during Hemingway’s lifetime and won him a Pulitzer Prize.

 

Moby-Dick

Herman Melville • 1851

Inspired by Melville’s whaling voyage in his early 20s, Moby-Dick endures as the greatest fishing story ever told. Not bad for a book that bombed during the author’s lifetime. It’s also an imaginatively constructed study of good and evil, cultural diversity and the existence of God, along with copious amounts of detail on whaling and sailing. The percentage of middle school students who claim to have read this book in its entirety—but who actually skipped over the “boring” chapters—will never be known. English teachers usually guess one or two kids per classroom make it cover to cover.