Vital Difference Maker Thomas Riethof
Every Thursday morning in the Maplewood Gift shop you will find a man volunteering as the cashier wearing shorts. He will greet you with smile and hello where you can hear a trace of his German accent. The quiet setting of the gift shop may mislead you in thinking that he has lived a normal uneventful life, but you would definitely be mistaken. Tom Riethof has lived an amazing life filled with danger, adventure, and helping of others.
Tom and his sister Elisabeth were born to Henry and Marie Reithof a wealthy German speaking in Czechoslovakia. His father, Henry, was the general manager of the Rindskopf Glassworks, his families very successful glass manufacturing business. As a young boy of a wealthy family life was filled with the best German schooling along with long vacations at Italian beaches, or Austrian Lakes with their mother and other wealth socialites always under the care of Czechoslovakia nursemaids.
At age 11 it was decided that Tom would attend a boarding school in England to further his education at this same time Hitler was savagely hand of terror was extending across Europe. Henry Riethof could see the writing on the wall and quietly made plans to move the family out of Czechoslovakia. Transferring business holdings through Swiss bank accounts the family escaped to England and joined you Tom in London now in his second year in boarding school. With German constantly bombing the factories of England Henry a manufacturer could see that England was not the place for them to start a business and establish a new life. With many countries not accepting “refugees” fleeing worn torn Europe the Riethof family made the dangerous voyage across the Atlantic first to Jamacia and then on to Ecuador. Tom learned many years later that several boats in their convoy were sunk by German U-boats, but as children this information was kept from him at the time. Once their they to the long train ride inland to the remote city of Quito set high in the Andean foothills.
Due to the war trade to Ecuador was ground to a halt from the US and Europe. Being an astute businessman Henry and a small group of transplanted Europeans started a paint company. That grew rapidly under the manufacturing expertise of Henry. Tom quickly learned Spanish and attended 4 years at Colegi Mejia the only boy’s High School in Quito. He was one of 5 “gringos” attending the school. During this time Tom connected with HCJB, a Christian missionary radio mission where he worked part time and got to meet a lot of other kids his age.
God in his wisdom had Church of the Brethren missionaries move in next door to the Riethof family. The families grew close and they helped Tom receive a scholarship for Chemistry and Physics from Manchester College in Indiana following high school. In November of 1945, Tom took a plane from Quito to Miami and on to Chicago. For such a young man of 18 years old Tom had been through more change than most people see in a lifetime, but he immediately felt at home at Manchester College. Due to his excellent educational training and language skills, by now Tom could speak 8 languages, Tom was able to text out of a full year of college and be on track to complete his under-grad degree in 3 years. In one his Chemistry Labs Tom had a beautiful you woman as his partner, Mary Lou Vance, and after a couple years of working up the courage they had their first date. Sharing a love for Chemistry and many other interests the couple was engaged in October of 1948. Tom started Grad school at Purdue in January of 1949 and after a summer of working at hot dog stand to earn money for the wedding they were married that September. Through their 5 years at Purdue Mary Lou worked as library chemist while Tom served as a teaching assist, while completing his classwork and thesis.
Upon Tom’s graduation in 1954 from Purdue Uncle Sam came knocking and tom was inducted into the Army weeks after his thesis as approved. Just like some many times in his life God had his hand of direction around Tom’s life. While the Korean War was in full swing and most draftees were being sent overseas 6 months prior to Tom’s induction the Army created a new program for those that had Doctorate degrees but were not looking to become officers. Through this new opportunity Tom was assigned to Medical Service Corps at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC after basic training. While in DC Mary Lou worked as a Chemist for Nation Institute of Health in Bethesda and Tom doing research in biochemistry and then in biophysics.
Upon completing his 2 year hitch with the US economy booming Tom had a number of job opportunities finally settling on working for General Electric in Philadelphia as part of their Missile and Space Division for the next 36 year. With the US-USSR “Cold War” rivalry in a full press Tom was at the forefront of technology designing re-entry missiles. This work was almost all consuming with the evaluation and improving of systems taking on different roles of scientist, engineer, managers and sales manager all the while being quietly working behind the scenes for CIA on special projects. As the Space Race ramped-up and the Cold war slowed down Tom made the transition to working on assorted space-based remote sensing projects for rockets. This kept him traveling across the country for about 3 days a week every other week. During this time Mary Lou continued her career in as a government Chemist and grew her interest in bird watching and growing orchids. The couple attended “?” Church of the Brethren and were involved in many ministries there. Tom and Mary Lou would often travel to Ecuador to visit family and makes various destination stops along the way where they perused their interest in bird watching and orchids.
Starting in the late 1970’s Tom got involved in the disaster response with the Church of Brethren first as an amateur radio, then helping with the Johnstown Flood, Hurricane Agnes eventually joining the Southeastern PA Chapter of American Red Cross Disaster Team continuing for 30 years. During this time Tom also joined the Whitemarsh ambulance association as an EMT/driver and treasure for 25 years.
Upon retirement in 1993 Tom and Mary Lou celebrated by taking a week bird/nature tour of South Africa. Their birding has taken them on many memorable trips to Kenya, Uganda, Australia, New Zealand, Congo (Zaire), and many other places along the way. In 2006, they sold their beloved California Rancher in Lafeyette Hill and moved to Peter Becker Community. Mary Lou now was facing some health challenges. Mary Lou went home to be with her Lord in 2010 shortly after the couples 61st anniversary. Tom continues to involved in many area, as a volunteer with gift shop, member of the Mission Support Committee, driving fellow residents to doctor’s appointments, continuing to attend his church in Philadelphia, and as a board member for the Whitemarsh Ambulance Company. Through all of his many life experiences Tom has continued to develop his great sense of humor, his passion to help others, and is a wiz with smart phones. Most evenings you will find him eating dinner with his group of friends in the Garden View Dining Room. I invite you to take the time to have a chat with Tom he will correct you on how to pronounce “Riethof” and I guarantee you will learn something new and insightful from this brilliant caring man.