At the very end of 2022, the federal government lost an extraordinary asset. After 36 years of service, Tom Reser retired. By the time my dad walked off the Spokane Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center campus for the final time on December 29, he had helped thousands and thousands of veterans. It would be an understatement to say he earned the United States flag that was given to him just prior to his last day.
My dad spent his entire career as a social worker. A bachelor’s degree from Washington State University and a master’s degree from Eastern Washington University, both in social work, prepared him well for the field. In the early 1980s, he worked a couple different jobs, including a position as a mental health counselor at Walla Walla Mental Health. But the federal government would soon come calling.
In 1986, he entered the VA system by accepting a position in the nursing home care unit at Mann-Grandstaff. The new job with the Department of Veterans Affairs meant my dad would re-locate to Spokane. He briefly left my mom and sister in Walla Walla and moved north. A few months later, his family would join him in Spokane. I would arrive a couple months later. 😊
Did my dad envision that he would still be in Spokane, let alone still with the VA, nearly 37 years later? I can’t speak for him but it definitely worked out pretty well. Starting with that first nursing home care assignment, my dad would excel as he climbed the ladder and built an incredible career.
A Decorated Career
A lot happened between that first day in February 1986 and his last day in December 2022 when his grandchildren helped walk him out of the VA Hospital for the last time. A blog post can’t come close to scraping that surface but I can at least highlight just a few of my dad’s accomplishments…
They include launching the Health Care for Homeless Veterans program in 1995. A couple years later he would keep that program rolling by bringing the services and support directly to the veterans themselves by opening a center in downtown Spokane. He was promoted to Chief of Social Work for the VA in 2004. In 2008 he was whisked off to Washington D.C. for two weeks where he would work in the federal central office and oversee the 10,000 VA social workers scattered across the country. He won several awards, including the coveted Hands & Hearts honor in 1993. He would receive consistent acclaim from his bosses, co-workers, and community members throughout his nearly four decades of service.
A Veterans Advocate
Throughout his long, diversified career, my dad never lost track of who he was serving. The rapport he built with veterans was uncanny and honorable. I always marveled at the reverence and attention-to-detail my dad had for his patients. For everyone my dad helped, he could easily tell you the branch and location of where they served. But he could also describe, in expert detail, exactly what the veteran did/achieved (duties carried out, battles fought, awards won, etc.) and place it in perfect historical context. This genuineness and respect endeared veterans to my dad—they instantly trusted him.
Again, I can’t stress enough how much my dad cared for his patients. Although he was so good at turning off “work mode” upon returning home when we were growing up, the veterans he helped were never far from his mind. I could tell by how he would cut out newspaper obituaries of his patients, take me to weekend veteran ceremonies, and gaze long and hard at residences where he knew a veteran lived while we were out on family drives.
To know my dad is to know a very considerate, humble, and hard-working human being. These traits made him a special person to work with. Need evidence? Just take a look at the trophy he was presented with by several of his admiring former employees at his retirement party. So much of what I learned about relationship-building came directly from my dad. Whether it was how he treated his bosses, co-workers, and direct-reports when I would visit his office or how he rolled out the red carpet at the numerous office parties/dinners he threw at our house, everybody loved having Tom Reser on their team.
This sentiment was thoroughly expressed to me at his retirement party. VA employee after VA employee came up to this very proud son to say what an incredible impact my dad had on them over the years. To the very end, my dad was the ultimate team player, the fair and compassionate boss, and the one who stood out because he gave 100% every single day.
My dad’s career impact undoubtedly touched veterans, VA employees, and the Inland Northwest community. But if I can get personal for one moment, his career legacy does not stop there. It also extends to his three children. My siblings and I had the distinct privilege of living under my dad’s roof for 18 years. During that time, he taught us first-hand what it means to be a professional. No, he didn’t vocally convey it to us because he didn’t need to; we simply just had to observe. By watching my dad, we learned that being a professional meant waking up early every morning, embracing a positive attitude, and showing up at work ready to serve your employer. He taught us that being loyal and ethical always pays off and that there is no greater honor than supporting your family. His example has helped me tremendously in my own career.
There is one final thing I need to make note of. My dad achieved his career success entirely upon his own devices. No one was about to do him any favors. He grew up in a poor family, lost both of his parents early, and was a first-generation college graduate. Despite obstacles, my dad didn’t take anything for granted, he didn’t complain, and he earned everything he achieved. He epitomized the American dream, and, in my opinion, is a modern-day American hero.
Happy retirement, dad. Don’t Blink.