Thomas Michael Valega, 76, died on Tuesday, January 28 in Warren, Minnesota.
Tom was born in Linden, New Jersey on May 23, 1937. His parents, Paul and Anna Bakalar Valega were from Czechoslovakia.
Tom was a musician (saxophone), a scientist (PhD in Chemistry, Rutgers University) and an avid birdwatcher.
Smitten by birds as a child, he organized a bird club when he was in elementary school. He and his neighborhood friends collected records of the birds in the Tremley Point section of Linden, NJ.
Early in his career, Tom did research on fire ants at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville Maryland, where met Minnesotan Larry Zeleny, founder of the North American Bluebird Society. Zeleny maintained a bluebird nest box trail at the Beltsville campus. Tom helped monitor the boxes for several years - until he took a job as a grants manager at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland where he worked in the artificial kidney program and later, dental research and the dentist-scientist program.
A long-time member of the Maryland Ornithological Society and the American Birding Association, Tom never left home without his binoculars, and he seldom came home without a story.
One of his most memorable stories took place in eastern Bolivia. Tom went on an expedition to Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado, said to be the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World. While his wife photographed Bat Falcons at the edge of the remote Ahlfeld camp near the Brazilian border, Tom took off with a photojournalist from BBC Wildlife for a swim in a pool at the foot of the nearby waterfall.
Sitting on a half-submerged log, listening to birds and enjoying the scenery, Tom was startled by the feel of something brush against his leg. A huge dark creature was circling him underwater. Suddenly the animal stopped and periscoped its head out of the water right in front of him. Tom sat there, unmoving as the two looked at each other – eye to eye. The creature bared its teeth – snorted and spit water at him - then swam away. That was Tom’s “close encounter with a 6-foot long, 75-pound Giant River Otter” story.
Tom was never much of a sports fan, but he had a passion for bats. Not the Louisville Sluggers. His bat collection was the real thing: live, night-flying, bug-zapping little fur-balls. In the Washington, DC area, Tom was the “go to” guy when unwanted bats needed to be “rescued” from buildings. If they couldn’t be released immediately, Tom had permits to keep them in flight cages in the basement of his Rockville, Maryland home. And while his wife shared his zeal, even she was dumbstruck the day he came home from the dentist – and proudly displayed his new smile, which featured a permanent “bat tattoo” on the crown covering his front tooth.
Tom was a popular tour leader for the Smithsonian Associates, and stories about his bird and bat conservation activities appeared in several publications including the Washington Post, USA Today and Baltimore Sun. Here’s an on-line link to one of his favorites: http://Cecilynabors.com/natural-history.
Tom also enjoyed classical music and was a big fan of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra.
Tom moved to Warren, MN in 2011 with his wife, Heidi Hughes, manager of the Agassiz Audubon Center.
He is survived by his wife, Heidi; his children, Margaret Valega, DDS (Poolesville, MD), Thomas M. Valega, Jr., Esq. (Houston, TX), Vinson Valega (New York City) a jazz musician and composer and Catherine Valega, CFP (Winchester, MA); the mother of his children, Mary Orr Valega (Woburn, MA); and several grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by his parents, his brothers Joe and Paul, and his sister Ann.
A private service will be held at Point Reyes Peninsula in northern California.
Memorial contributions may be made to Agassiz Audubon Society, 120 East Bridge Ave, Warren, MN 56762.