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Thomas J. Gibbons Jr., 73, elite highway patrolman and, later, a crime reporter for the Inquirer

In August 1970, Mr. Gibbons was shot during a bloody weekend of unrest in Philadelphia. He narrowly escaped with his life. Recovery took a year.

Former Inquirer police reporter Thomas J. Gibbons Jr.
Former Inquirer police reporter Thomas J. Gibbons Jr.Read moreLaurence Kesterson / Inquirer File photo

Thomas J. Gibbons Jr., 73, of Somerton, a member of the Philadelphia Police Department's elite highway patrol unit who narrowly escaped with his life after being shot in the line of duty, then recovered and went on to become a distinguished Inquirer crime reporter for more than two decades, has died.

Mr. Gibbons died Friday, March 16, two months after undergoing surgery for brain cancer at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He had greeted the ordeal with customary good humor, his family said.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross Jr. said: "Tom Gibbons was a selfless and courageous police officer. He was also a compassionate and honorable man. While he will be sorely missed, his legacy will always be cherished by the men and women of the Philadelphia Police Department."

"Tommy deserves enormous credit for helping establish the Inquirer's rich tradition for outstanding police reporting," said Stan Wischnowski, executive editor for Philadelphia Media Network. "He set the bar for excellence, and his legacy is still felt in our newsroom today."

Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Gibbons was the son of Police Commissioner Thomas J. Gibbons Sr. From the get-go, there was little doubt that son would follow father onto the police force.

The defining moment came at age 6, when he watched from the passenger seat as his father screeched to a halt in his city car, locked it, and jumped out with a shotgun to stop what he thought was a robbery in progress.

Though it turned out there was no robbery, the incident impressed Mr. Gibbons. "That's when I got the bug" to be a cop, he would later tell the Irish Edition, a monthly newspaper.

After graduating from La Salle High School in 1962 and spending three years as a copy boy at the Evening Bulletin, Mr. Gibbons became a patrolman assigned to the precinct at Harbison and Levick Streets. He was so green, he didn't know how to answer the police radio.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Gibbons qualified for membership in the exclusive Highway Patrol, fulfilling a dream. The unit handles incidents citywide and has a famous motorcycle drill team.

"We wear boots and britches and helmets," Mr. Gibbons told the Irish Edition in 2008. "There is no better way to clear a corner in a tough neighborhood than the arrival of two highway cops who jump out of an unmarked car with nightsticks."

Mr. Gibbons didn't dwell on the dangers of patrol work, but at 8:25 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 30, 1970, danger found him and partner John Nolen.

Dispatchers had warned patrols to watch for a Cadillac with two men who had beaten police detectives and seized their service revolvers. Mr. Gibbons pulled the car over at 59th Street and Cedar Avenue, he wrote in the July 9, 2016, Inquirer. Protocol did not yet call for protective vests.

"I walked up to the driver still behind the steering wheel. Nolen went to the passenger side. I asked for the driver's license and registration. Suddenly, Nolen yelled to me over the car's roof, 'Look out, Tom, he's got a …'"

The passenger fired at Nolen, striking him in the face. As Mr. Gibbons drew his revolver, the driver shot him in the elbow and wrist. A third shot, as Mr. Gibbons sought cover, glanced off his pelvis and deflated a lung.

As he took stock of his injuries, Mr. Gibbons heard gunfire. Nolen had opened fire on the men, who were out of the car. One assailant fled. As the other sped off in the car, Nolen gave police dispatchers the location.

"An officer scooped me up and threw me in the back of his car. I asked him to get me a Catholic priest," Mr. Gibbons wrote.

Nolen was discharged in a week, but Mr. Gibbons underwent multiple surgeries and spent a year recovering. The assailants were convicted and sentenced to prison.

Mr. Gibbons returned to the force as a radio-room supervisor with the rank of corporal. But his wish to be back on patrol wasn't realistic. At age 28, after seven years on the force, he retired on disability in 1972.

In January 1973, Sam Boyle, city editor of the Evening Bulletin, told Mr. Gibbons: "We could use you as a reporter," according to the Irish Edition.

Mr. Gibbons worked nights covering crime  He reported to John F. "Jack" Morrison Jr., the Bulletin's night city editor.

"He was an excellent police reporter," Morrison said. "He had this big black car he used to tool around the city in. He had a lot of contacts naturally because of his name. Because he had so many sources, he was able to get stories that others had trouble getting. Besides that, he was such a nice guy."

"I met Tom when I was a freshly minted police officer," said Thomas J. Nestel III, now chief of SEPTA's Transit Police. "He was doing a story on an arrest that I had made, and I was nervous to talk to the media. He put me at ease by saying that all he was trying to do was show people some of the great work done by police officers."

Mr. Gibbons was a street reporter. Once he had the details of a crime, he phoned them in to a Bulletin rewrite person. The writer composed the story.

The next day, the phone rang. "Hey, pal," he told the writer. "Thanks for making me look good."

Mr. Gibbons soon learned to write his own reports. In November 1981, the Inquirer offered him a job covering crime. Though loath to leave, Mr. Gibbons joined the competition. The move was prescient. The Bulletin folded two months later.

"Having worked with Tom as a reporter on the MOVE story and later as an editor, I know based on firsthand experience that he was a stellar reporter," said William K. Marimow, now vice president of strategic development for Philadelphia Media Network. "If there were an Inquirer Hall of Fame, he would be a unanimous choice."

On Nov. 18, 2005, Mr. Gibbons retired. Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson helped plan a sendoff. While officers gathered in Johnson's office, his Highway Patrol friends stood at attention on the sidewalk below, their motorcycles lined up on the walkway with emergency lights flashing.

The commissioner ushered the retiree downstairs. "He was surprised. His face lit up," Johnson said. Then Johnson drove Mr. Gibbons to the Inquirer newsroom. As Mr. Gibbons entered, flanked by Highway Patrol, the newsroom erupted in applause.

In retirement, Mr. Gibbons enjoyed spending time with family at the Jersey Shore.

Mr. Gibbons is survived by his wife, Carol; a daughter, Carey Kelman; two grandchildren, two step-grandchildren and a sister.

Visitations will be held Monday, March 19, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Tuesday, March 20, from  9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at Galzerano Funeral Home, 9304 Old Bustleton Ave., Philadelphia, followed by a funeral Mass at 11:30 a.m. at Maternity BVM Church, 9220 Old Bustleton Ave., Philadelphia. Interment will be private.

Donations, which will go toward the purchase of a motorcycle for the Philadelphia Police highway patrol unit, may be made to the Philadelphia Police Foundation,  P.O. Box 4358, Philadelphia, Pa. 19118, or