Thomas Fillebrown has seen a lot in his years.
The now-Hamilton resident served in World War II, was police chief in Hopewell Borough for more than a decade, volunteered as a fireman and a EMT, and even arranged New Jersey’s first EMT class for volunteer first aid squads. He organized the Hopewell Borough Memorial Day parade. He has long been active in the community, both with various American Legion posts and with Hopewell Presbyterian Church.
Fillebrown has helped a lot of people, so on his 100th birthday May 15, many of those people decided to attempt to return the favor.
“In his life, in his amazing 100 years of life, there’s a commitment to serving the wider community, both through the church and then at large,” Hopewell Presbyterian Church pastor Melissa Martin said.
Local Hopewell and Hamilton police and fire departments, and first aid squads, Hopewell Presbyterian Church members and friends and family of Fillebrown honored his life’s work with a surprise birthday drive-by parade.
When original party plans were canceled due to COVID-19, Fillebrown’s family and church of over 60 years pulled together the alternate plan to drive past his home in Evergreen at Hamilton, a 55-and-older community located across from RWJ University Hospital Hamilton.
Fillebrown received a framed certificate of appreciation signed by Hopewell Borough Mayor Paul Anzano, a certificate from Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin, a letter from Congressman Chris Smith, a letter from the Mercer County Police Chiefs Association and a hat from the Notre Dame High School Patriots Club.
He has been around the world, but his life started 100 years ago in Raritan Township on his family’s farm.
He worked there with his five brothers, until he decided to enlist in the armed forces prior to Pearl Harbor. Fillebrown joined the United States Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the Air Force, and was stationed all over the United States including Florida, Mississippi, Idaho, Washington and Arizona, as the country built up its bomber force.
Fillebrown worked as a mechanic on B-17 bombers, and in 1943 he was shipped to England along with some 20,000 other soldiers. He spent the remainder of his time during the war based in England. He was discharged in 1945 as a technical sergeant, when the war ended.
While stationed abroad, Fillebrown met his first wife, Winifred, who was working in London at the time. The two were married in 1945 before the end of the war.
He returned home that year and awaited his new bride’s arrival in the U.S. She crossed the ocean on the S.S. Argentina, along with hundreds of other war brides, to join her husband in 1946.
Fillebrown worked for an oil delivery company and found other odd jobs until his wife arrived. The newlyweds lived on the family farm for a while, eventually moving to a house in Raritan Township, where they had their oldest child, Brian.
The family stayed in the Raritan area until 1953, when they had their youngest son, Guy.
At this point the family migrated to Hopewell Borough, which had a couple shops including a five-and-dime and locally run grocery stores. Fillebrown started doing part-time police work for the town and worked as an officer for another nearby department.
The small town only had one full-time officer and a chief at the time, so when the chief stepped down, Fillebrown was offered the job.
Working as police chief from 1955 to 1968 in a small town like Hopewell Borough had its perks and downfalls while growing up, Guy Fillebrown said.
As one of the only law enforcement officers in town, Fillebrown’s house was frequently called and visited. When someone got in trouble, news traveled fast. Fillebrown was the one who had to handle it.
He stayed until 1968, at which point he started a job with the state in the Administrative Office of the Courts. At first, he worked as an investigator and then transitioned into sound recording for the courts.
At the time the state was switching over in municipal court from stenographers to sound recording, which Fillebrown was involved with. He left the job in charge of the program.
It wasn’t just police work that Fillebrown was instrumentally involved with in Hopewell. He was and still is a member of the American Legion, was a member of the fire department and first aid squad in town and helped organize the Hopewell Memorial Day Parade.
After retiring from the police department in ’68, he continued his town involvement through these organizations.
For many years he helped set up for the town’s Memorial Day parade, mapping out the parade route and distinguishing starting spots.
“I can remember going out the night before and putting the numbers on the street where the band was going to go, and this unit was going to go,” Guy Fillebrown said. “When you’re a young kid that was a lot of fun.”
Being involved with his local American Legion post was yet another aspect to his devotion to his home community. He was a member of the Hopewell post for some time and eventually transitioned to Trenton Post 93 when he moved to the Hamilton area. He would participate in selling Christmas trees, running a carnival in the summertime and handing out poppies on National Poppy Day, which reminds people of the sacrifice veterans made for their country.
Fillebrown was distributing poppies last year and attended meetings until the COVID-19 crisis barred gatherings.
Part of Fillebrown’s celebration is set to include his American Legion post. Post 93 vice commander Richard Libensperger, 83, was in the Air Force from 1954 to 1958, served on a bomber base in Kansas and on a troop carrier base in France. He has been friends with Fillebrown for years.
They work the poppy drive every year, where the two enjoy each other’s company, as well as attend meetings regularly.
Libensperger, nearly a 60-year Hamilton resident, recalls one story Fillebrown shared with him about being discharged from the Army in 1945. Fillebrown was sent to South Dakota after leaving Europe. Fillebrown said to a major that the troops were told they would go home when they got back from Europe. The major replied, “Soldier, you are home. The United States of America, this is your home.”
“I’m proud to have known this man because he’s what the real America is about,” Libensperger said.
The two last saw each other about three months ago. Libensperger is looking forward to celebrating his friend’s birthday and being able to see him.
Fillebrown also played an important role in securing the state’s first EMT class for volunteer first aid squads held in Hopewell around 1970.
“It was the first time that the volunteers in New Jersey took a first aid course other than American Red Cross,” Guy Fillebrown said. “It involved a lot of state involvement.”
First aid squads from surrounding areas attended the initial training, including Pennington and Lambertville.
Even Guy Fillebrown, a senior in high school at the time, took the course as a junior member.
Guy Fillebrown worked as a police officer in Montgomery Township for 28 years and retired as a lieutenant. He recognized that seeing his father’s work while growing up was an influence on his later career choice.
“I joke that I went into the family business,” he said.
Guy has been a resident of Hamilton since 1986, while Fillebrown’s older son, Brian, resides in New Hampshire.
Thomas and Winifred Fillebrown remained in Hopewell until 20 years ago when they moved into the new-at-the-time Evergreen development. They lived there together until 12 years ago, when Winifred passed away.
Fillebrown remains in good health and still gets around with the help of a walker. His regular cardiologist visits assure that he is healthy, having undergone a valve replacement at 93 and getting a pacemaker.
He was remarried seven years ago, when he was 93, to Margret Paul.
They still attend services at Hopewell Presbyterian Church regularly. During the pandemic, they have been attending church service through Zoom, making Fillebrown the oldest church member at the online gatherings.
Fillebrown was a deacon and has led the church community in service over the years.
“Tom has been a member of our church for over 60 years which is super great and really amazing to have that…collection of memories in him and he has served in our church in a variety of ways,” Martin said. “One of which, he served as a deacon in the church for multiple terms.”
Martin came to Hopewell Presbyterian Church last July and is relatively new to the community, but that didn’t stop her from building relationships with her church members, including Fillebrown.
She met Fillebrown on her first visit to the church and was welcomed by fun and interesting stories about his life, stories that shed some light for Martin on the current pandemic situation.
“Tom is quick to share a story about his time in the military or his time in leadership in the community,” Martin said. “I think what he shares with us through that is that if we keep our eyes fixed on the hope, we’re going to make it through, and things are going to be OK.”