Solemn holiday: Delaware filmmaker, veteran to speak at Memorial Day service

Lewes filmmaker and Vietnam War veteran TJ Healy will serve as the keynote speaker at the Memorial Day ceremony of Kent County Chapter 850, Vietnam Veterans of America, on Monday at 2 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Park off S. Little Creak Road in Dover. Submitted photos

DOVER — Thomas ‘TJ’ Healy II has worked alongside Hollywood actors such as Robin Williams, Christopher Lloyd and George Clooney in his role as a filmmaker for more than 50 years, but they had nothing on his real heroes — the men and women of the U.S. military.

Mr. Healy grew up with stories about World War II filling up dinnertime hours in his childhood home in the Wilmington area. Those endless tales of patriotism and selflessness always served to inspire him, especially when he enlisted in the Navy Air Reserves at age 17 after graduating from Brandywine High School in 1964.

So, it’s perfectly natural that Mr. Healy will serve as the keynote speaker at the Memorial Day ceremony of Kent County Chapter 850, Vietnam Veterans of America, on Monday at 2 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Park (the one with the Huey helicopter) off S. Little Creak Road in Dover. The event is open to the public with families and children encouraged to attend.

“I was actually taken aback when Dave Skocik asked me to speak,” Mr. Healy said, of Mr. Skocik, president of Friends of Delaware Veterans. “I’ve been very much involved with the Vietnam group out of Kent County and I get this call and (Mr. Skocik) said, ‘I want to ask you a favor. I want you to be a keynote speaker.’

“I was very honored. I know what this group represents. I’m always on the other side of the camera, so it will definitely be different being up front and center (on Memorial Day).”

While Mr. Healy, now a Lewes resident, has been involved in the production of movies such as “Dead Poets Society,” “Back to the Future I, II and III,” “Home Alone,” “Dying Young” and “The Perfect Storm,” it is his most recent projects that put the focus on veterans that lie closest to his heart.

By the time the production team that Mr. Healy worked with got ready to produce “The Perfect Storm” in 1998, he had moved back to Delaware and started Black Sheep Production Co. In 2010, he started the non-profit Film Delaware and in 2015 lobbied for the creation of the Delaware Motion & Television Development Commission.

Recording history one vet at a time

In 2001, Mr. Healy’s company began shooting “Voices of War,” a digital oral history of World War II veterans from Delaware in which he recorded the stories of “hundreds of World War II veterans.”

Now, he serves as the CEO of The Veterans Story Project, which is producing digital oral histories of Korea, Vietnam and women veterans that are part of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project and the Delaware Public Archives.

Mr. Healy said The Veterans Story Project allows veterans to tell their stories in the way only they can convey. He said, “it is imperative we guarantee the stories are recorded for posterity and for the greater understanding of future generations.” He expects to record the stories of around 400 Vietnam veterans over the next year.

He said taking some of those veterans back deep in their memories can be therapeutic for them.

TJ Healy has rubbed arms with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, but it’s the veterans of the U.S. military who have almost commanded the most respect from him.

“I’ve had more cards and letters from daughters and sons and wives of our World War II vets and our Vietnam vets,” said Mr. Healy. “It’s very spiritual, and it’s only myself, my producers and the vet, so it’s a very quiet place. It is very therapeutic for them, especially the Vietnam vets. They’re talking to me, and since I’m also a vet, it’s more of a one-on-one.

“These are stories that people should know about.”

He has his own stories as a veteran of the Vietnam War while enlisted in the Navy Reserves.

“The Navy is a lot like the National Guard,” said Mr. Healy. “I was part of the active duty reserves and was stationed in Los Alamitos, California. I was part of a transportation squadron and our job was basically dropping supplies, known as West Packs, off in Vietnam.”

While many were protesting the Vietnam War, Mr. Healy couldn’t wait serve in the military.

“I wanted to go in from day one,” he said. “A lot of my buddies I grew up with were the same way. As a kid I grew up around all that, listening to the veterans, being with the veterans, and listening to their stories.”

Finding his focus in films

It was during his time in the Navy Reserves back in 1966 that Mr. Healy landed a part-time job at Universal Studies – suddenly, his future was coming into focus.

“It was just like the construction business I grew up in,” he said. “What I do is I’m a location manager and line producer. I do all the coordination of everything. I put all the scenes in the movie together, all the logistics, first on the scene. I set up all the hotels, security … a little bit of everything.”

His first job with the film industry goes back to a Vietnam-era film featuring the original Vietnam vet character, Billie Jack.

“That was my first paid film job and I was still serving in the Navy in Seal Beach, California,” he said. “I was a production assistant and scouted filming locations.”

Nowadays, following his memorable experience with working on “Dead Poet’s Society” at St. Andrews School in Middletown in the 1980s, he has worked diligently to get more movies and TV shows to come and film in the First State.

“The state was just crazy when we did ‘Dead Poets Society,’” Mr. Healy said. “It seemed like everybody was into it. We spent $18 million in Delaware, we had high schools working and it just seemed like the whole state was involved in it.”

He recently did work with Big Beach Builds, a DIY Network show that follows Bethany Beach builder Marnie Oursler as she fixes up beach property.

He believes there are even greater opportunities out there in Delaware for the entertainment industry to capitalize on.

“Our problem right now is nobody knows that we’re here,” Mr. Healy said. “I’m interested in bringing multi-million-dollar projects into Delaware. This area is perfect for a smaller show to come in because they can cut through the red tape. I really think we’ll get a lot of requests once people know we’re here and open for business.”

Not slowing down

Mr. Healy’s career in filmmaking has now spanned more than a half-century. He is currently working on an Apollo rocket project film in recognition of ILC Dover’s upcoming 50th anniversary and its contribution to the space program.

Mr. Healy laughs when he recalls one of his favorite stories of his movie-making career while preparing to film “The Perfect Storm.” He said he spent six months looking for a boat that resembled the Andrea Gail, a private fishing vessel that was lost at sea with all hands during the “Perfect Storm” of 1991.

It turned out that a sister boat to the Andrea Gail was just down the road in Ocean City, Maryland.

“Our Andre Gail actually came from Ocean City,” Mr. Healy said. “After looking around half the world for six months, I found it right around the corner. It was the exact boat I needed. It was very, very weird how that all came together.”

While Mr. Healy finished his Navy enlistment in 1968 and went on to enjoy a long career in filmmaking – one that’s still going strong – he has never lost respect for all who have served.

Monday will truly be a day of reflection for he and all the other veterans that will gather at various locations throughout the state.
“Memorial Day is a great holiday, but it’s not a fun day. It’s something to think about,” Mr. Healy said. “You can go to the beach and have a beer, but that’s not what this holiday is about.

“I’ll actually be speaking to the choir with the veterans. My message will be short and sweet, I promise.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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