Though his death was barely noticed, he mattered. And I want you to know about Dr. Thomas Mwanika.
During the last six months of my grandmother’s life in our local hospital’s nursing and rehab center, I met a remarkable man — a man with a smile and laugh as warm and welcoming as the morning sun. At the risk of sounding even more prosaic, he had a twinkle in his eye.
This man often sat near the nurses’ station, smiling and nodding to everyone who passed by — including me and my mom. I eventually sat down and talked with this man, and I looked forward to speaking with him every time I visited the center to see my grandma.
This man would tell me stories of growing up in a small town in Uganda, of moving to America and getting his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctorate, and of the students and colleagues he met over the years.
This man would sometimes hold my grandmother’s hand while they ate dinner or push her wheelchair down the hall. We were happy that during this difficult time in both of their lives these two strangers — he 74 years of age and in declining physical and cognitive health due to a stroke; she 91 years of age and in declining physical and cognitive health due to a fall — connected even for a brief period.
This man was Dr. Thomas Mwanika, and today I found out he had passed away in January of this year. The president of his former place of work wrote his obituary. There is very little written of his passing, and I wanted to write this essay to tell you, dear reader, that this great man lived and died.
Thomas Mwanika was born in Uganda in 1944. Education was important to his family, and he often told the story that his mother promised to run naked through the streets of their hometown if his son could get an education in the United States.
One friend of Tom’s told me that Uganda had a lottery system to send a handful of students to the U.S. for college and that Tom was selected. I can’t confirm this story, though Tom did indeed study in the United States and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Wisconsin and his doctorate from Michigan State University.
From his obituary, Tom’s “teaching and scholarship focused on communication research, statistical methods…