Ten years after her husband’s sudden passing, Debbie Blakely and her two daughters are still preserving his memory as living reminders of his legacy and contributions to the Robbinsville community.
Debbie’s husband, Tom, was a United States Marine Corps veteran and prominent political consultant, having worked on the reelection campaigns of numerous New Jersey politicians and served as director of appointments under former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.
He passed away in 2008 at age 46 after collapsing during the Bordentown St. Paddy’s Day 5K run.
“I remember when he died first thinking, ‘How am I going to get through the first year?’” Blakely said. “Time just goes by so fast.”
In 2011, Robbinsville Township eternalized his memory by dedicating Blakely Park on Meadowbrook Road to him. Today, Debbie’s two girls, Brielle, 13, and Maggie, 11, play lacrosse at that same park.
“We love just riding by that park and seeing his name,” Blakely said. “I’m still happy and grateful to the town for doing that.”
‘I learned a lot about how resilient we are as humans. We can bend all over the place but not break.’
For Blakely, whose children were only 3 and 1 when her husband passed, one of her largest responsibilities has been keeping the memory of their father alive even though they were too young to remember him.
“Brielle was 5 at the time when she told me she doesn’t remember him,” Blakely said. “But that’s my job, to keep him alive through them. They know him so much because I keep telling them what a great guy he was.”
While Brielle and Maggie may have been too young to remember their father, his passions and career have shaped their lives. Tom’s love of athletics has been passed down to the kids, who enjoy track and field and lacrosse. Meanwhile Blakely has instilled a strong sense of political activity in them, teaching them the importance of voting and the motto “if you want change, go and change it.”
“They love history so much, just like he did,” Blakely said. “He weaved his way into them, even without being here.”
Since Tom’s passing, Blakely and both her children have been active members of Good Grief, a Princeton-based organization dedicated to helping families who have lost a parent or spouse. The program, as Blakely describes it, helps teach that “grief is good.”
“It’s a really a fabulous program, they helped us tremendously,” Blakely said. “It was helpful for the girls to let them know there’s someone out there.”
As well as helping those in mourning at Good Grief, the Blakelys are living a busy life as most families do. Brielle and Maggie attend Pond Road Middle School in seventh and fifth grade, respectively, and are involved in athletics, music and church while balancing busy social lives.
“The kids are doing great,” Blakely said. “I think they’re happy, they’re thriving and they’re involved in their school.”
Blakely herself works part time as a speech therapist at Mercer County Special Services and volunteers at her local church. However, her biggest job is, as she describes it, being a “full-time mom.”
“It’s really tiring being a solo parent, but it’s worth it,” Blakely said. “We’re still the same people, just busier.”
The family continues to keep Tom’s traditions alive, with the whole family participating in the Bordentown St. Paddy’s Day 5K run, the same race Tom collapsed in. Blakely describes the event as “bittersweet.”
“They stay alive by talking about them and celebrating them,” Blakely said. “The minute we stop talking about them is the day they truly die.”
At first, Blakely was skeptical about letting her daughters participate in the same event that her husband died in, but has since embraced the annual event as a way to preserve his memory. Blakely was even invited to speak at last year’s run before the race.
“I was so nervous, I didn’t even want the girls running,” Blakely said. “But I can’t put my fears on them.”
Throughout the years of grieving since Tom’s passing, the Blakely family has still had a constant friend to rely on for support: the Robbinsville community.
“This town is fabulous,” Blakely said. “If you have a problem, people are there for you.”
The Blakely’s story has helped teach others that it’s our experiences, both good and bad, that make us stronger, better and more successful people.
“I learned a lot about how resilient we are as humans,” Blakely said. “We can bend all over the place but not break.”