Leo Thomas Heywood, Jr., a beloved ear, nose and throat doctor in the greater Omaha area for 40 years, died on Sunday, November 12. He was 81.
Widely known as “Dr. Tom,” Tom practiced medicine in Papillion, Auburn and the Omaha Veteran’s Administration Hospital before retiring and moving to the Houston suburbs in 2014.
“He was the kindest guy,” said Barb Barner, who worked as a nurse in Tom’s Papillion office for six years. “His patients adored him.”
Born on September 29, 1942, Tom lived the first three years of his life with his mother, Agnes, in downtown Omaha while his father, Leo, Sr., served in the U.S. Army during World War II. His favorite toy was a gyroscope.
Tom attended kindergarten at Dundee Elementary School. His teacher remarked in a progress report in that “Tommy has a friendly disposition” and he “particularly enjoyed block construction, the results always showing good planning and observation powers.” He began elementary school at St. Margaret Mary, then transferred to and graduated from St. Philip Neri, both in Omaha.
Tom showed a proclivity for electronics at an early age. He was constantly fiddling with gadgets and building things, including model train parts for his younger brother, Bob. He also hooked up Model T batteries to things like chairs and doorknobs to shock people (usually Bob). When he wasn’t playing practical jokes, he was teaching his younger brothers to ride bikes, drive cars, or do math. He also easily talked people into letting him do things, such as getting the local Jaguar dealership to let him and Bob sit in their cars when he was a teenager.
“He was a presence,” said Bob. “He was always the sharpest knife in the drawer in our family, and I think everybody respected that. I always looked up to him.”
Tom loved music and played the accordion. In high school, he took up the clarinet and sang in the school choir. He also belonged to the Radio Club.
Bob Kemmy, who met Tom in their freshman year at Creighton Preparatory School and later was one of his groomsmen, said Tom was “phenomenally good” at chemistry and physics. He didn’t need to conduct the assigned experiments. Instead, he would work ahead on paper and fill out the classroom materials, then spend the rest of class conducting his own experiments.
“I learned more about anything to do with science just being there shooting the breeze with him than I would have picked up in an average class in college,” said Kemmy, who remained lifelong friends with Tom. “He had a way of being there for each person. He was just the greatest listener in the world.”
Tom graduated from Creighton Preparatory School on June 1, 1960 with a Latin Diploma and went on to study at Creighton University. For two summers, he worked at Teton National Park and once summited Grand Teton.
After a year at Creighton University, Tom dropped out of college and, on October 17, 1961, enlisted in the United States Air Force. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, he attended special weapons maintenance tech school for a year at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado. While there, he earned a pilot’s license in his free time. Following tech school, he was stationed in the Philippines during the Vietnam conflict for two and a half years. His activities at Camp John Hay in Baguio were classified, and he didn’t breathe a word about what he did there for 50 years. Instead, he regaled his family with stories about studying Judo, hearing the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for the first time in a local bar, and hanging out with Filipinos. When his job was finally declassified, he revealed that he had been working outside the scope of the Air Force, monitoring nuclear testing by the Soviets and Chinese. On August 16, 1965, he was honorably discharged from the Air Force.
Eager to pursue a career in electronics, Tom enrolled in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1965. It was there, during his first year, that he met the love of his life, Barbara Boczar, at the student union. He tutored her in chemistry, math and physics, and she wrote his English papers.
“It was love at first sight,” Barbara said. “He was the kindest most generous person I had ever met. Also the funniest.”
Tom was inducted into Eta Kappa Nu, the international honor society for of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, on March 28, 1968, and Sigma Tau, the University of Nebraska’s engineering honor society, on March 20, 1969.
Tom graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on May 31, 1969 with a bachelor of science in electrical engineering. He landed a job at Instrumentation Specialties Company as an electrical engineer – the highest paying job out of his class, with an annual salary of $10,000. He and Barbara got married on July 12 following his graduation, and he promised to support Barbara while she attended medical school. That plan held up for six months until he decided he wanted to be a doctor, too. After taking a biology classes at night, he aced the entrance exam for medical school, so he was easily accepted.
Tom was inducted into the Phi Rho Sigma medical fraternity in 1972, but was an honorary member for two years before medical school because he was Barbara’s husband and they wanted him to attend their parties. He graduated from the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) College of Medicine on May 25, 1975. The next year, his daughter, Angie, was born. He completed his residency at UNMC from 1975 to 1979, ultimately serving as chief resident in otorhinolaryngology and maxillofacial surgery. As part of that training in 1977, he and Barbara served as physicians together for three months at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. In October 1979, he was certified by the American Board of Otolaryngology in general otolaryngology, otology, facial plastic surgery, head and neck surgery, and pediatric otolaryngology.
Following his residency, Tom joined his wife’s ENT practice at Midlands Hospital in Papillion, where they worked together and shared patients and call for 20 years.
Tom was known as an excellent physician who cared deeply about his patients. He accepted fresh vegetables as payment from patients who couldn’t otherwise afford treatment, and one Sunday afternoon he drove 25 miles from his home at Beaver Lake to deliver a cancer diagnosis to a patient in La Vista.
In the operating room, Tom was known for being patient, calm, and able to improvise.
Barb Ricci, who worked as a nurse in the operating room at Midlands hospital, frequently scrubbed in with Tom over 20 years.
“He was always fun to work with and he liked to tell stories,” Ricci said. “He was a great doctor. Everybody was comfortable with him.”
In the clinic, Tom spent quality time with each of his patients – so much so that his nurses often scolded him for being behind schedule.
Barb Barner said working with at the Heywoods’ ENT clinic was her “most favorite job ever.” After a long day of seeing patients, Tom still would take time to sit down and chat with his staff, often about politics.
“He always had a smile on his face,” Barner said. “He never got mad about anything. He was so kind and he was so respectful of all of us.”
Citing an overall dissatisfaction with the insurance industry, Tom retired from private practice in the spring of 2000.
Never one to give his mind a rest, Tom promptly attended Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, where at the age of 58 he earned an associate degree in applied science in computer technology on May 23, 2001, and a second associate degree in applied science in microcomputer technology on February 19, 2002, both with honors. He was always tinkering with computers, and once turned the language of his operating system to Klingon and struggled to change it back. The school asked him to consider teaching, but he declined.
Instead, he went back to work as a doctor, running the ENT clinic at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Omaha, where he found great satisfaction teaching medical residents and working with veterans until 2015, when he and Barbara moved into the house next door to their daughter in Humble, Texas. His residents remember him as kind and, due to years of private practice, more practical that the university’s attending physicians.
“He was so influential in so many people’s lives,” said Catherine Craig Wright, one of his former residents.
Tom’s life was defined by a zest for learning. He was always working on a project, and he could figure out how to do anything. He, Barbara and Angie spent 15 years building their own house at Beaver Lake, where Tom served on the Homeowner’s Association. They moved in before the walls were up and spent weekends soldering plumbing, putting up and spackling the drywall, hammering in the flooring, making the trim, and painting all the rooms. He taught Angie how to use nail and staple guns safely before she was 7.
Throughout his life, Tom had many passions. There was nowhere he was happier than on a boat. He sailed for weeks at a time at Lewis & Clark Lake in South Dakota with family and in the Gulf of Mexico with his good friend, Harry Keig. He, Harry and Barbara once took Angie’s Girl Scout troop sailing for a week off the coast of Florida. He loved to take people for rides on his pontoon boat at Beaver Lake while listening and singing to Jimmy Buffet. And he spent weeks at a time on early summer mornings helping Angie learn to water ski before heading off to work.
Tom never stopped marveling at the world around him. He loved astronomy and throughout her childhood took Angie paddle boating on summer nights to stargaze, always with one can of smoked oysters and one can of black olives as a snack. For several years, Tom and Angie fed fistfuls of corn to fish from their dock just to watch them dine at night under flood lights. Tom eventually climbed down into the water to feed them and was surrounded by gigantic catfish and carp.
Tom loved to snow ski, and was always seen on the slopes with a Captain America hat and a leather Bota Bag of Mogen David wine dangling from his neck. Talented in the kitchen, Tom was known for grilling the perfect steak and making the world’s best gravy. According to his granddaughter, no one could make better French toast. He also trained with his father to be a clown.
Tom was deeply interested in politics. It was often possible to hear Rush Limbaugh playing from outside his house. He sent Angie summaries of the news when he thought she wasn’t paying enough attention to current events in college. And when she was a newspaper crime reporter, he diligently read all of her stories online and called her to talk about them.
But most of all, his love of science never faded. From developing a highly accurate lightning detector for his back yard to designing an operating system for his pool jets that ran on binary code, he never stopped creating new things. In 2019, when he was 77, he took the exams for all three levels of HAM radio licenses in one night. Shortly before his death, he still used a slide rule for fun.
Tom cherished the time he spent with his grandchildren, who lived next door in Texas until 2021 (when the entire family moved into the same house in Singapore). He spent time watching each of them in the evenings while Barbara traveled for work, and he kept them up late watching his favorite movies. He taught his granddaughter, Isabelle, trigonometry when she was in the sixth grade after deciding it was absolutely necessary for her to master it early on. He developed championship Pinewood Derby cars with Thomas, and he ignited Leo’s passion for coin collecting. He often helped them with science projects and sometimes made up math or physics problems to solve just for fun.
In the Spring of 2022, Tom and Barb moved back to Coldspring, Texas when Tom fell ill with esophageal cancer. He was in and out of the hospital for a year after that. In late Spring 2023, when brain metastases were already slowing him down, Tom still connected with Isabelle through Zoom to help her understand how a particle accelerator worked (and how to do calculus in order to understand the physics). He was tinkering with radio equipment until the very end.
Tom was very religious. He never missed mass, and loved to talk about how he knew that God created the universe.
“Our loss is Heaven’s gain,” said Jack Hillon, a friend Tom met while touring Poland in 1996. “A huge hole is left in our world, never to be filled again by anywhere close to the same way. I am jealous of the good Lord, who has upgraded his guest list considerably.”
Tom was preceded in death by a brother, John Michael Heywood, and his son, Leo Thomas Heywood, III. He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Barbara Heywood; his daughter, Angela Heywood Bible, and her husband, Chris Bible; grandchildren, Isabelle, Thomas and Leo Bible; brothers Bob (Cynthia) and Brian (Ellen) Heywood; and nephews Nick, Andy, Chris and Eric Heywood and their families.
Services will be held on Saturday, November 17, at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, 4002 J St., Omaha. Rosary and visitation will be at 9 a.m., and the Funeral Mass will be at 10 a.m. Burial will follow the Mass at St. John’s Cemetery, 7506 S. 36th St., Bellevue.
Memorials are requested to St.Joseph's Indian School at http://www.stjo.org (under the "Ways to Give" tab) OR Missionary Society of St. Columban, 1902 N Calhoun St., St. Columbans, NE 68056-2000
To view a live broadcast of the services, click on the "Stream Funeral Service" option.