CHESTERFIELD, Va. -- Thomas Reilly is a soft-spoken 14-year-old boy, whose actions speak volumes; from earning straight “A’s” at Robious Middle School, mastering the art of the standup base, to hitting baseballs.
Baseballs happen to be some of Thomas' favorite belongings. A case of signed balls sits protected on his desk.
“We’ve got a few from Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter,” says Thomas. “They’re from my favorite team, which is the Yankees.”
But Thomas’ most prized possession has nothing to do with America's pastime. His favorite memento is a red, white and blue cane.
“For this cane to be passed on to me it is a big honor,” says Thomas. “It is nothing like I ever had before.”
The cane was once owned by Thomas’ best buddy, Clarence Walters. Thomas first shook hands with Clarence at a military airshow last year at Chesterfield County Airport.
“As soon as I saw him it was an instant ‘Wow! I got to meet this man!’” Thomas said. “He is a living legend.”
Thomas was immediately drawn to the veteran's experiences during WWII.
“No one I know has gone through what he has gone through,” says Thomas. “I saw him and I said I want to get to know him. I want to get to know what he knows.”
The unlikely pair would quickly forge a relationship.
“I never knew I was going to be friends with someone that was almost a century older than me,” says Thomas.
Thomas would regularly visit with Clarence and shoot the breeze over hot chocolate and peanut butter fudge.
A willing Clarence was willing to quench Thomas' thirst for first-hand stories about the war.
“I bet 99% of Americans don’t get to meet men like this,” says Thomas.
The bond between the bright-eyed boy and aging veteran would grow stronger as the months wore on.
“I mean I think I learned more about my dad and his war experiences because of Thomas,” says Clarence’s daughter, Donna Beverley. “I had the chance to sit in the room and listen.”
Thomas’ mother, Crystal Reilly, says Thomas has always had an appreciation for veterans. She said every time her son would see a military man or woman he would approach them and shake their hand.
“It is amazing to see the interaction in that moment between the person that is serving and Thomas. It is really powerful,” says Crystal.
But the teen’s relationship with Clarence was different.
“He has been through everything from John F. Kennedy, the Great Depression, Martin Luther King; he went through everything,” says Thomas.
But on Feb. 5 when Clarence passed away, Thomas' friend was gone.
“It was rough,” says Thomas.
Mr. Walters' daughter, Donna, presented Thomas with Clarence’s “WWII Veteran” hat. She also asked Thomas to pass on Clarence's cane to another veteran.
But little did Donna know her gesture would inspire a movement.
Thomas hatched "Standing Tall” earlier this year.
The non-profit raises money to buy American-made canes. Thomas assembles them and plans on passing them on to disabled veterans and aging veterans.
“Standing Tall” is inviting other school children to build a cane and pen a “thank you” letter to a deserving veteran.
”I love what he is doing in memory of my dad and he will help so many people and Dad inspired him to do this,” Donna says.
Clarence’s initials will also be branded on each cane.
“To see your kid do that, that makes you choke up alone,” Thomas’ father, David Reilly, says. “But then to know the person and who he is doing it for? It is a pretty amazing feeling -- couldn’t be more proud.”
The humble teen says “Standing Tall” is the least he can do to honor his friend and mentor like no other.
“He’d be happy and proud to know that this cane isn’t just helping one but it is helping hundreds,”says Thomas.
Thomas Reilly is a humble teen who relishes raising a different sort of cane for Clarence.
“I can tell you he will be a part of my life until the day I die. And hopefully I live as long as him,” says Thomas. “I miss him more than anything else that I’ve lost. He was a great friend.”
“Standing Tall” is organizing a cane building event on Nov. 19, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Chesterfield Country Airport.
To sign up, click here.
If you know someone you would like to see featured in my “Heroes Among Us” segment email reporter Greg McQuade by clicking here.