GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Thomas Henry Schurtz was a renaissance man, his friend and longtime co-worker Charles “Chip” Garrison said.
“He was a very, very deep soul, and he realized that there was a lot to life. And I think that’s the greatest lesson I’ll take with me from him: to look at the world and be a participant in the world,” Garrison said Friday.
Schurtz, 68, died Monday in his home. It wasn’t long before an outpouring of love for the educator, coach, director and father began to overflow from the community.
“He made the impossible possible,” said Ed “E.J.” Johnson, a retired media specialist from Absegami High School who worked with Schurtz on plays at Assumption Regional Catholic School in the township.
Johnson recalled when Schurtz had the students perform “Mary Poppins” and figured out how to make them fly through the air. In a production of “The Lion King,” Schurtz had multiple stages built in the audience so the students could act in 360 degrees.
“He didn’t think that it was impossible for kids who normally don’t do these things to do them,” he said.
Schurtz had been substitute teaching at the Catholic school and was scheduled to go into work Monday when he died. Before that, Schurtz taught language arts at Assumption, where his late wife, Mary Ellen, was a principal. Mary Ellen died in 2017 after a battle with cancer. The two have four children, Thomas Jr., Robert, Kathleen (“Kass”) and Stephen.
According to his obituary, Schurtz was born to Henry and Genevieve in New York City and grew up in Clark Township, Union County. He attended Union Catholic High School and began his career in education in the 1970s after graduating from La Salle College. He taught and coached basketball at Central High School in Newark before the couple moved to Galloway in 1984, when he took a job at Absegami.
“When I first started teaching, he became a good friend and I learned a lot from him in how I handled myself in class, how I handled myself as a teacher,” Garrison said. “His lessons extended beyond the classroom for many of us.”
Garrison, who still teaches English at Absegami, said Schurtz “made his classrooms come alive.”
“He loved Shakespeare and, more importantly, he inspired the kids to fall in love with Shakespeare, too,” he said.
That love of literature translated to a love of theater. Garrison said he and Schurtz directed several plays together at Absegami and worked together outside the high school.
“That was actually a little bit my fault,” Thomas Schurtz Jr. said Friday, explaining he signed up for the play, prompting his dad to become involved. Schurtz Jr. recalled his dad directing him and his high school sweetheart and now-wife, Rannette, in several productions.
“That enjoyment lasted well past my high school experience,” said Schurtz Jr.
Schurtz was entrenched in the community, as a teacher, mentor and for a short stint in 2008 and 2009 as a township councilman. One of Schurtz’s most well-known monikers was “Coach.” He coached youth sports in the township and at the school.
“He believed in educating the mind and the body,” Schurtz Jr. said.
Garrison said the number of former students who have reached out to Schurtz’s family and friends since his passing has been overwhelming. He said many of them have said Schurtz made a difference in their life, or helped them get into college.
Schurtz would tutor students for the SAT for free on the weekend, Garrison said.
“He genuinely wanted kids to do the best that they could do and get into any college that they wanted to go,” he said.
Jill Pritchett, an Absegami graduate who taught alongside Schurtz for a few years at Assumption, said he had a larger-than-life personality and could get anyone excited about what he was talking about.
“We always called it the Tom Schurtz effect,” she said. “He could walk into a room and they were ready to listen to anything he had to say. I wish I could emulate it.”
Pritchett said the Assumption community immediately came together after the loss and held a prayer service Thursday night.
“I think it’s still something that everyone is processing,” she said.
Schurtz Jr. said he is not at all surprised by the outpouring of support for his father.
“He was a cornerstone of this community as an educator,” he said.
He said his dad had a gruff demeanor and outward bravado, but a soft soul.
“He loved with a big heart, but he loved in his own way,” Schurtz Jr. said. “All of that came from a humble place of love, and he really did love this community.”
Garrison said he will miss Schurtz’s laugh, but most of all his friendship and camaraderie.
“Tom had a way of making you feel good about yourself even if you didn’t feel all that well about yourself,” Garrison said. “That’s a rare gift in anyone.”
Asked to describe his friend, Johnson recalled Schurtz’s last year teaching at Absegami, when a group of his students got together to perform for him “For Good” from the Broadway musical “Wicked.”
“It fits him to a T,” Johnson said.