In Memory of Thomas N. Cummings
by Dana Forman
Every once in a long while a man is able to reverse the inertia of great adversity with such vigor that countless lives are bettered.
Such was the legacy left by Thomas N. Cummings, founder, first President, and first Executive Director of the Mass Council on Compulsive Gambling, who died in January of 1998 at age 76. Having suffered the financial and emotional destruction of problem gambling throughout much of his life, Tom not only conquered his addiction, but also dedicated his last 15 years to helping others overcome theirs.
Consistently charming, polite, and animated, none of his Mass. Council colleagues could ever recall Tom losing his temper. He was an excellent listener who was quickly able to assess the plights of those in trouble and recommend appropriate countermeasures. When not counseling people with gambling problems or their family members, he often could be found testifying eloquently in a distinctive, sonorous voice at State House hearings. "As more forms of gambling become available and new markets are created, more people are going to gamble and more people are going to experience problems with gambling," said Mr. Cummings in a 1992 interview.
Indeed, as legalized gambling expanded on both a national and statewide level, Tom conferred with tens of thousands of folks who had been negatively impacted by problem gambling. Whether at home or in the office, he never turned down the chance to answer a distress call.
"He was very supportive of my recovery," said Jack, whose life had been troubled by gambling. "We used to meet periodically for lunch, and even during my rough periods where I was out gambling, Tom would counsel me and help me deal with it... He was very compassionate and understanding."
It was not Tom's mission to stamp out legalized gambling. He understood that people would always find ways to gamble, legal or not. He'd often say jokingly, "If gambling were outlawed today, I'd open up a bookie joint tomorrow." He knew that city and town governments have become increasingly dependent on gambling revenues for maintaining police and fire departments, public schools, and public works projects. But he warned, "The state itself is now a compulsive gambler," and urged lawmakers to find more creative ways of raising revenues.
The inception of the Mass Council began with Tom's wish for helping compulsive gamblers in the Bay State. In 1982, he led a delegation of eight to New York City to study treatment clinics. It took him more than a year of persistent work to persuade Beacon Hill lawmakers to set aside funding to aid problem gamblers.
Tom created the Mass Council in 1983 with no funding. His kitchen served as headquarters where he fielded calls from people troubled by gambling and their family members.
In 1987, the Mass. Council opened a Boston office. A year later the state's first treatment center for people experiencing problems with gambling and their families was opened at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. Seven years later, clinics were established in New Bedford (Child & Family Services) and Northampton (Cooley-Dickinson Hospital). Tom continued to fight for added funding for the treatment of pathological gambling. In 1997, 13 additional treatment centers opened statewide.
"Tom created a special environment that helped thousands," said Dr. Howard Shaffer, Director of Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions. "Make no mistake about it: There were people who thought that the task of building a helping environment for people who gambled excessively was impossible."
During his quest to raise the level of awareness of problems associated with gambling, Tom developed many close relationships. "Since I have known him, Tom's life centered on helping people with gambling problems. It was his passion and his pride," said Kathy Scanlan, who worked with Tom for more than 10 years before succeeding him as Executive Director in December of 1998. "His vision created the Council; his courage maintained it in the face of opposition and indifference; and his leadership - always creative, positive, and unconventional - hastened its growth."
Because he was proactive for more than 15 years in dealing with the compulsive gambling problem, Tom gained a profound understanding of the nature of recovery. "He was wise in many ways," said Jack, who recalled his favorite Tom Cummings quote: "Don't seek serenity. Accept who and what you are and serenity will seek you."
Added Dr. Shaffer, "One of Tom's most remarkable qualities was his special capacity for enduring friendship. Tom knew how to care for all those people around him."
Tom was often sought out by the media as THE expert in the area of problem gambling. He frequently was quoted in The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald and interviewed by area radio and television stations.
Despite deteriorating health toward the end of 1997, Tom toiled literally until the last moment that he could. He was stricken in downtown Boston while walking to a Department of Public Health meeting of clinicians from the state's recently opened gambling treatment centers. He died five days later at Mass. General Hospital.
Ultimately, Tom did not allow compulsive gambling to ruin his life. He said, "I turned my problem into helping others."