Thomas (Tom) H. Highley, 80, of Fort Myers, FL, passed away peacefully on January 25, 2021, surrounded by his loving family. He was born on November 19, 1940, to Herman and Thelma Glendenning Highley of Columbus, OH, and was a graduate of Jackson Central High School in Arcadia, IN and Ohio State University in Columbus, OH.
Tom was larger-than-life. His parents and early experiences on the farm shaped the man he became and the successes that he achieved. His father was a hardworking entrepreneur who set high expectations for himself and his children. His mother was a vivacious optimist who was always the life of the party. Tom inherited all of their best characteristics and cultivated more of his own.
A rabid fan of Ohio State football and Indiana University basketball, Tom’s favorite coaches were Woody Hayes, Bobby Knight, and John Wooden. All three were hyper competitive, demanded excellence from themselves and others, were highly principled, and most of all loved their players and fellow coaches.
Tom loved anything to do with the water. A skilled captain, boating was his guilty pleasure. He also loved to wax nostalgic about life on the farm. While he didn’t do it as often as he would have liked, he always enjoyed riding horses and embracing his inner cowboy.
No one was a bigger movie buff than Tom. His favorite actors were Cary Grant, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson, and he embodied a little bit of each of them. With his movie star good looks, confidence, quick wit and charisma, he emulated his big screen heroes.
Tom was also famous for his one-liners. I’m in good shape for the shape I’m in, finer than frog hair, this too shall pass, what does not kill us makes us stronger, we will have to agree to disagree, and getting old ain’t for sissies were some of his favorite sayings. But more importantly, he was known for saying I love you, openly, genuinely and frequently to his beloved family.
Tom enjoyed more than 45 years in the building products industry. He began his career with Owens Corning in Pittsburgh, PA in 1967, where he eventually rose to the rank of Regional Vice President. In 1981, Tom was recruited to be President and CEO of Reserve Supply in Fridley, MN. In 1986, he moved to Wausau, WI to become an Executive Vice President with SNE Enterprises, a large holding company. In 1991, Tom took the reins as CEO of The Empire Company in Zeeland, MI. Tom became the majority shareholder of the company with his business partners in 2000. It was his crown jewel, as they grew the business from less than 100 employees to more than 500, and from just under $40 million in revenues to more than $200 million. Not surprisingly, Tom would say the move to Empire was the best business decision he ever made. It’s also where he met his wife of the past 23 years, Patricia. Tom and his business partners sold Empire in 2006 and he stayed with the company until his formal retirement in 2014.
A man with a huge heart, Tom was also a fierce competitor and fighter. His first blue ribbon came as a young man in 4H, when his champion steer won 1st place at the Indiana State Fair. He continued winning his whole life, including being recognized as Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. He even beat cancer more than once. But through it all, Tom enjoyed spending time with loved ones the most. A dedicated father, son, husband, brother, uncle, grandfather and friend, he will be sorely missed by everyone who had the pleasure to know and love him.
Tom is survived by his wife, Patricia Crouch Highley; his children, Michelle Highley Vaughan of Alexandria, VA, Thomas B. Highley of Holland, MI, and Melissa Highley Tilton (Scott) of Herndon, VA; step children, Michael (Hanna) Crouch and Derek (Stephanie) Baynton; grandchildren, Olivia Highley Martillotta (John), Hannah Highley, Gabriella Highley, Caroline Highley, Morgan Vaughan, Kate Vaughan, and Annabelle Tilton; step-grandchildren, Lila Baynton and Sienna Baynton; brother, John Highley (Linda) of Troutman, NC; and sisters, Jeanne Van Putten of Elkhart, IN, and Joanne Gresh (Mike) of Naperville, IL. In addition to his parents, Tom was preceded in death by his brother Danny Highley, his sister Barbara Highley Pyle, his former wife and the mother of his children, Carolyn Highley, and his brother-in-law, David Van Putten.
Due to COVID-19, a celebration of life service will be scheduled at a later date when it’s safe for friends and family to gather, hug freely and share joyful memories of Tom.
The family requests that those who wish to express sympathy consider making a donation to either the NYU Langone Health Dysautonomia Center (https://nyulangone.org/give/fundraise/thomashighley), the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holland (https://bgch.org/support-us/#donate), or a charity of your choosing dedicated in Tom’s name. Family and friends may sign the guest register by visiting www.baldwincremaion.com.