For the last eight years, Tim McLoone—bandleader, restaurateur, sports announcer, marathon runner, and Harvard grad—has worked the crowd at the annual gala of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of New Jersey. Last May he served as emcee. He stood before a sea of black ties at the Palace in Somerset as a photo of a ten-year-old named Jack, bald from chemotherapy, filled a giant screen behind him. McLoone told the story of this high-energy kid whose life became an exhausting series of chemotherapy treatments after he was diagnosed with leukemia last year.
Talking to crowds is second nature to McLoone. But when he reached the end of his speech, his smooth baritone faltered. “Jack,” he told the crowd, “is my son.”
McLoone’s gaze shifts as he tells this story, and his eyes water—but he quickly rebounds. “People were practically throwing their wallets up on the stage,” he recalls with a laugh. The money McLoone raised that night went to Make-A-Wish. As the founder of Holiday Express, another nonprofit group that helps the sick and disadvantaged, McLoone is no stranger to raising money to help others. It’s just that the people he’s made appeals for have never been kin.
“The irony wasn’t lost on us,” says the Little Silver resident, 59, sitting at an ocean-view table at McLoone’s Pier House in Long Branch, one of three Shore restaurants he owns. “But everybody’s got stuff, and it was just our turn. The reality is, it can happen to anybody.”
The impartiality of misfortune has long been clear to McLoone. In 1991, during his nine-year tenure as director of game operations and arena announcer for the Nets, he pitched in at a holiday event the team held for the underprivileged in Newark. The experience inspired him, but he also thought he could do a bit better.
A piano player since his South Orange boyhood, the multitalented McLoone already had a band, and in 1993 he organized them—and other friends in the music world—under the name Holiday Express. The first event that year was for Better Beginnings, a prenatal care center in Stamford, Connecticut, with the goal of bringing young, disadvantaged mothers in for a holiday party and parental training.
They did ten events the first year. The next December, Bruce Springsteen joined the band onstage at the Tradewinds in Sea Bright for the group’s first fundraiser. “Prior to that, it had all been coming out of my pocket,” McLoone says. McLoone and Springsteen had known of each other for years (Springsteen’s aunt was McLoone’s father’s secretary), but they connected when McLoone let Bruce and the E Street Band rehearse for the Tunnel of Love tour at his restaurant in Sea Bright in the 1980s. It wasn’t difficult to get the Boss to help with the Holiday Express fundraiser, which remains the one solicitation the group makes all year. “He is such a softy anyway,” McLoone says.
Over the years, Holiday Express has performed at the Rockefeller Center tree lighting three times; for the families of the victims of the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado; and again with Springsteen for the families of 9/11 victims. The group also hustled down to Louisiana and Mississippi to visit the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. But mostly they’ve brought their energy to scores of clinics and shelters throughout the Metropolitan area. All told, the ensemble has held more than 500 events.
The band participates in WPLJ’s annual Big Show with Scott and Todd holiday broadcast, playing at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, New York, with the likes of Bon Jovi, Meatloaf, and Rob Thomas. “The thing about Tim is that he couldn’t humanly do any more to help other people than he already does,” says Scott Shannon of the Big Show. “He and that crew don’t care if it’s 10 people or 10,000. They give the same performance and the same efforts, and they spread the same love.”
Actually, Holiday Express has become much more than a band. Every fall, more than 600 volunteers, many of them Boy and Girl Scouts, put together about 15,000 gift bags at a Tinton Falls warehouse (the 5,500-square-foot building is a leap forward from the early days, when McLoone’s family ran the charity out of their kitchen). When the concert schedule kicks off in November, Holiday Express “elves” deliver the customized gift bags, paint faces and apply temporary tattoos, run games and contests, and generally keep people smiling. The events are always free—McLoone says the band gets paid with the great feeling they have when they get on the bus afterward—and the season culminates with a show at St. John’s Soup Kitchen in Newark every Christmas Eve. “Our job is to find out what the ultimate holiday party is and make it happen,” says McLoone.
In November 2006, McLoone was preparing for the fourteenth season of Holiday Express concerts when his family got the news that Jack, the second of his four children, had been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of leukemia. The ensuing year was tumultuous. Jack was unable to attend school, he endured heavy chemotherapy, and even contracted shingles. McLoone and his wife, Beth, moved the family to a better-insulated house, in part for Jack’s benefit. Their three other children, Molly, 19, Connor, 9, and Hannah, 7, have rallied to keep things as normal as possible.
Years of interacting with sick children helped prepare McLoone and his family for this chapter, though he says it didn’t make the battle any easier. Still, the experience has enhanced his outlook and strengthened his resolve to help people. “If I needed to complete my education, it’s been completed,” he says.
The WPLJ events may create the impression that Holiday Express mainly looks after children. In fact, grown-ups—“adult orphans, people who are lost to society”—get most of the attention. “We see a lot of people in group homes and institutions who have an extremely gray existence,” McLoone says. “We come to deal with colossal emotional poverty, and we try to lift the human spirit.”
The group gets plenty of help in that mission. Last year its gross fiscal revenue totalled $1.4 million, including the value of donated goods and services, the annual benefit show, cash donations, and proceeds from CD sales. In addition, outside organizations such as Sickles Market in Little Silver hold unsolicited fundraisers for the nonprofit. Since 2000, Holiday Express has awarded three college scholarships a year, totaling $180,000 so far. In 2005, the group launched its “Express Makeover” program: Musicians and volunteers built a new pantry, more office space, and an access ramp for the St. Mark’s Soup Kitchen in Keansburg.
“Tim is one of New Jersey’s hidden treasures,” says state Senate President Richard J. Codey, whose history with McLoone’s father goes back decades. “And he’s a Jersey guy, through and through.”
This season, Holiday Express plans to throw 55 free holiday parties for those who need a lift this time of year. The first such event was scheduled for Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains on November 19—almost exactly a year since news of Jack’s leukemia. “I don’t think at any moment we’d have said, ‘Why us?’” McLoone says. “I’ve been with these thousands of people who are in worse circumstances than us. Jack can walk away from this, and we see all of these tragic circumstances where people are not able to walk away. It keeps things in perspective.”
This fall has been rocky for Jack, who McLoone says is “sick of being the leukemia kid.” He returned to school, and his parents say even his posture straightened. But a trip to a Bon Jovi concert can be quickly followed by a long stretch in the hospital. McLoone says they take everything day by day. “The truth is, I’ve always been drawn to those who are sick or have disabilities,” he says. “And I’ve looked at others in this situation and thought, It must be tough. Really, I had no idea.”Click here to leave a comment