CLARK — Thomas Balsamo was surrounded by friends and family members as he was sworn in as the township’s newest police officer. His thoughts, however, drifted back to his late grandmother.
Nicolina Balsamo was a feisty and fearless member of the Chatham Police Department for 40 years, during which time she once issued a ticket to the police chief for parking in a handicapped space.
When the chief approached her about the ticket, she shrugged and told him: “Don’t park illegally.”
“She was gutsy,” Thomas Balsamo, 21, said. “She was old-school Italian. She did her job as parking enforcement officer and she didn’t give anyone breaks. She was a tough cookie.”
Considering she often baked cookies for the officers and helped residents find lost puppies, she had a soft side, too. She repeated her tales of life on the beat until her death in 2013, when she died of cancer at age 79.
The way Grandma Balsamo demonstrated that little acts of kindness can make a big difference inspired her grandson to pursue a career in law enforcement.
“I’m not necessarily as excited to bust people for drugs and stuff like that,” Thomas Balsamo said in a July 3 telephone interview. “I’m excited to help people with little things. I was sitting around the department as of yesterday, there were a lot of calls for fire alarms that were going off but there was no fire or anything.
“They just needed help turning the alarms off. That’s the kind of little stuff that I’m excited to do. I’m looking to do those little things because those little things mean the world to other people. To me, my grandma and my parents raised me to help others and you’re supposed to feel gratitude from that at the end of the day. That’s why I chose this profession.”
The new Clark officer grew up in Berkeley Heights and earned an associate’s degree from Raritan Valley Community College. He then transferred to Kean University, where he graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a minor in public administration, earning a 4.0 grade-point average along the way.
He was still in his cap and gown when he got the call to join the Clark Police Department. Chief Pedro Matos said he thinks Thomas Balsamo’s cool, collected demeanor will serve him well in an often-stressful profession.
“After getting to know him, I think his maturity level is going to help,” Matos said in a telephone interview July 18. “For a 21-year-old kid, he brings a different light, the way he thinks things through.
“Police officers have to bring a certain amount of maturity to understand the problems that they’re dealing with, whether it be a victim or someone he has under arrest. Yes, we are enforcers to some extent, but we have to understand the people we serve, the shoes they walk in.”
Thomas Balsamo said the ceremony was also a time to reflect on his long battle with Lyme disease. As a child, he developed a bull’s-eye rash on his leg after being bitten by a tick. After a month of antibiotics, he seemingly moved on with no lingering effects. Years later, he got sick in middle school and it took doctors years to determine his illness was a recurrence of Lyme disease.
“I missed pretty much from seventh grade till my senior year in high school,” he said. “I was in and out of a wheelchair. I was really ill. I was getting homeschooled by my teachers at school.
“After being misdiagnosed for years and years, it had made its way to my brain and my heart. It impacted me neurologically and my doctors didn’t really think I was ever going to get better.”
Even at his lowest point, he said he never felt alone. He often found himself being wheeled into the emergency room and was always comforted by the sight of the on-duty officers who wished him well.
Other officers, who were family friends, would visit him in the hospital, and their kindness made an impression on him.
“I always looked up to those guys and I thought, ‘What better way to give back than this field,’” he said. “So, I put my mind to it and in college my freshman year I fell in love with the profession. I did an internship with the Union County Police. I fell and love and haven’t looked back since and never had another thought of anything else I would do with my life.”
Photos Courtesy of Thomas Balsamo