Nova Scotia Knight Tom Bagley gave his life checking on neighbors amid a house fire and a gunman’s deadly rampage
by Francis Campbell
Helping and caring were a way of life for Tom Bagley. “He would help anyone, friend or stranger, expecting nothing in return,” said his daughter Charlene. “It was in his nature to give.”
That selfless nature brought Bagley, a Royal Canadian Navy veteran, retired firefighter and Knight of Columbus, to his neighbors’ burning home in the rural Nova Scotia community of Wentworth on April 19.
He could not have known that the fire had been ignited by a gunman in the middle of a 13-hour rampage that spanned 170 kilometres (more than 100 miles) across the province. Bagley, it is thought, saw the fire or heard a disturbance while on his morning walk and went to help. He was killed along with the homeowners, two days shy of his 71st birthday. They were among the 23 victims (including an unborn child) of what became the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history.
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, in a letter to the Nova Scotia State Council, wrote that Bagley, a longtime member of St. Bernard’s Council 11625 in Enfield, embodied the Order’s principles.
“Surely, no one could express better than he, during the final moments of his life, what it means to ‘leave no neighbor behind,’” the supreme knight wrote. “It is my hope that, in this way, our brother Knight will continue to inspire thousands more, through the good works of the Knights of Columbus.”
As a boy growing up in rural New Brunswick, Thomas Edward Bagley saw a picture of the HMCS Bonaventure, the last aircraft carrier in service with the Canadian Armed Forces, and he set his mind to serving on that ship one day. He joined the navy at 17 and went on to realize his dream.
Bagley began his 10-year naval career with a posting to Chatham, New Brunswick, where he met his future wife, Patsy Aucoin.
“They say that nobody is perfect, but he was perfect in my eyes, one of a kind, and a heck of a good man,” Patsy said of her husband of nearly 47 years. “He was an amazing friend, an amazing husband, an amazing dad.”
Tom had learned firefighting in the navy and transferred those skills into civilian life in 1974, taking a job as a firefighter at the Halifax International Airport. The Bagleys settled in Elmsdale, a village to the north. They had a daughter, Charlene, and later adopted two more girls, Karla and Amanda.
Not long after Tom and Patsy’s move to Nova Scotia, a young firefighter named Joe MacLean transferred to the Halifax airport’s fire service. He lived with them for a couple of years and forged a close friendship with Tom that spanned more than four decades.
In the 1990s, the two friends joined Council 11625 at St. Bernard’s Church in Enfield. Bagley served as membership director for a year, but his real niche was in the kitchen during the Knights’ regular community breakfast.
“He loved it in the kitchen, telling stories,” recalled MacLean. “He was renowned for his dollar fries — cutting potatoes in rounds, leaving the skin on them.”
MacLean, who served as the council’s faith director for more than a decade, added that Bagley was always happy to help. “He was never looking for glory. He was just there to work. If you ever needed a hand with something, Bagley was there.”
Faith and family formed his life’s foundation. In addition to his wife and three daughters, he also left behind two grandchildren: Charlene’s son, Brody, and daughter, Braea.
“Tom would light right up when he mentioned the kids,” Patsy said. “He adored them.”
A storyteller with a passion for his Harley Davidson motorcycle and the great outdoors, Bagley also had a gift for friendship.
“People who were lucky enough to know him, they were friends with him right away,” his wife recalled. “He was just one of those types of people.”
MOTIVATED TO HELP
Tom Bagley worked with the airport fire and rescue crew for 31 years. Even after retiring, he continued to volunteer with nearby fire departments.
Several years ago, he and Patsy began to winterize a cottage they had acquired in Wentworth, an hour’s drive north of Elmsdale, and Tom soon got involved in the community. He served as a lector and assisted in any way possible at the mission church of St. Cornelius in nearby Streets Ridge. The consummate jack-of-all-trades, he was also quick to use his plumbing, electrical, carpentry and painting skills to aid his neighbors.
“He was well liked by everybody. They all knew he’d drop anything he was doing to go help someone,” Patsy said.
And that is exactly what he did the morning he died. The motive of the gunman, who was shot and killed in a confrontation with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, remains unclear, but Bagley’s motives were more transparent.
“He got shot trying to help friends,” Patsy said. “That’s who Tom was.”
Charlene Bagley said she was blessed to have him as a father.
“I cannot make any sense of this tragedy at all,” she said. “I’m completely heartbroken for my mother, who lost a very loving and devoted husband, for my children who lost their beloved Poppy, and for myself, who even though I’m an adult, still needs her dad so badly. My world will never be the same without him.”
Tom Bagley’s remains were buried at 11 a.m. May 7. Though they could not be there in person due to COVID- 19 restrictions, his brother Knights from Council 11625 prayed together that morning for Bagley’s soul and the consolation of his family. Among them was David Lewis, the council’s financial secretary.
“‘He would give you the shirt off his back’ is a description often attributed to many a good man, but it fit Tom to a T,” said Lewis, who knew Bagley for more than 20 years. “He was a Knight who expressed the principles of Leave No Neighbor Behind all his life, and died doing so.”
FRANCIS CAMPBELL is a journalist for the Halifax Chronicle Herald and a member of St. Bernard’s Council 11625 in Enfield, Nova Scotia.