By Michele J. Kuhn
An organization that brings much joy and music to thousands of people each year can trace its roots to the loneliness of a young boy.
“When I was little, my brother was really ill. He had polio. We lived on the grounds of the veteran’s hospital in East Orange and, with my only sibling ill for a good period of that time, I spent a lot of time alone,” said Tim McLoone, founder of Holiday Express, an organization that will have brought 64 performances, gifts and food this season to about 20,000 disadvantaged people by Christmas.
That loneliness McLoone felt, coupled with his constant interaction with veterans at the VA hospital tragically injured during World War II, “sensitized me on some level or other that there were things in the larger world, bigger than us.”
While McLoone can recall the feeling of being alone even while attending adult holiday parties with his parents – his dad was director of special services at the VA facility – he also recalls the strong empathy his parents showed toward others.
“My parents were empathetic people so it was always in the house. I think my dad did a lot of good for people and my mother was always great with my friends who may have had unsettled family backgrounds,” he said.
McLoone built on that legacy and foundation of caring for others while working for the then-New Jersey Nets basketball team as the team’s director of game operations. In that job, he was responsible for the entertainment of fans before and during games when there were timeouts, TV breaks or time between quarters. He would also arrange for off-site Nets-sponsored events, including a Christmas party.
“One of the players was from Newark and he wanted to do something for the homeless in Newark on Christmas Eve,” he said. While many in the organization were none too happy about a Christmas Eve event, it was “like a moth to the flame,” for McLoone.
He made the arrangements and arrived to find 400 to 500 people there. There was food, some gifts but no music.
McLoone thought about the event all year. “It clearly had touched me,” he said.
When December rolled around again and a similar party was held, he brought along his daughter, a friend and a boom box. Midway through the party he realized, “I’m a musician. What am I doing playing tapes?”
But, the idea of bringing holiday spirit, food, gifts and especially live music to people less fortunate, stuck with him.
“I kept talking about it with people and finally my friend, Sara Tucker, was like, ‘I’m so sick of you talking about this. Why don’t you just do it?’”
That resulted in a meeting on Oct. 15, 1993, with people who worked with him at the Rum Runner in Sea Bright. They came together and decided to form Holiday Express.
“The idea was we were going to call it ‘Holiday,’ instead of Christmas because we were going to be totally nonsectarian,” the 65-year-old Little Silver resident said. “The ‘Express’ part was because we were going to go to the people … One of the biggest problems for people with substandard incomes is that they don’t have transportation. I knew we had to go to them.”
A month later was the first rehearsal, 17 musicians showed up – “astonishingly,” McLoone said. Most were lead singers “and we were banging around songs. It sounded horrible.
“But, there was a seminal moment, even at the first rehearsal, when we did John Lennon’s ‘Happy Christmas’ … When the words ‘So, this is Christmas’ started, everyone got really quiet and there was this thing going – at least from a musical standpoint – we realized we were onto something. At this point, I hadn’t envisioned the larger picture. I thought I we were just going to bring a band and some food and some gifts.
“There was something about that moment that gave everyone the proverbial goose bumps,” he said.
The first show was in Stamford, Conn., at a place where clients were young teens with children of their own.
While McLoone contends, “we didn’t sound great,” the show generated tears from his busload of volunteers when they arrived back in the Two River area.
“I realized that we stumbled onto something that was really personally enriching,” he said. “The idea that ‘it’s better to give than receive’ is so cliché but we got a big dose of it that day.”
They did 10 events that year – “They weren’t all appropriate because I didn’t know where to go” – but he kept digging and looking for the places where holiday events weren’t routinely held. That eliminated hospitals and schools but he found that facilities for the poor, mentally ill and other challenged populations were often left out.
A “great part” about Holiday Express is its devoted volunteer base who work behind the scenes in the warehouse and on stage. The organization has more than 100 professional musicians and “more volunteers than things we have to do,” he said. “I think that is because it feels so good.”
That “so good” feeling is evident on the bus after each performance when the participants universally think, “Man, I’m glad I did that,” he said.
“The people we see are so resonant with us in basic, human ways that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I think that’s why we have to turn (volunteers) away … No one leaves. I think that’s because they find it so rewarding.”
Among the ideas McLoone had right off the bat was that the music had to be “challenging” because if not, the singers and musicians wouldn’t last long in the organization.
He also knew it was important for the audiences that Holiday Express bring a high level of musicianship. “Our audiences, in most cases, are just happy to see a live band. In many cases, they have never seen one and will never see another one.”
Another idea that developed while bringing “the ultimate holiday party with no strings attached” to those they entertained was including food and gifts. Among those Holiday Express has partnered with is Jersey Mike’s Subs which supplies sandwiches for many performances. Gifts – including toiletries, hats and gloves, stuffed animals, candy – come from a variety of vendors, organizations and individuals. The items are stored and then packed at a Shrewsbury warehouse that is a year-round operation. Each person they see gets their own bag – a tote bag or backpack – filled with goodies.
While the organization is geared to bringing music and joy to disadvantaged populations in a “high energy” format, McLoone said it got to him about 10 years ago. “I went through a period of time when I would come out of this pretty depressed about the human condition and the endless number of people that we were going to see. But then it turned a corner, the goodness of it and the people’s response, that is overwhelming – in a good way,” he said. “You know the old saying ‘There for the grace of God go I?’ We get a good dose of that every day.”
McLoone said the hardest time for him each season for some unknown reason is about 10 days into the performance schedule. “I really hit the wall and I struggle physically to do the shows. It takes a few days, and then I can go forever.”
Holiday Express is just part of what McLoone does, though it is a year-round organization that needs about $1.2 million to operate and fundraising is constant. He is in the process of adding the ninth restaurant – in Hoboken – to his restaurant group. He is the coach for the Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School boys and girls crosscountry and track teams. He is a musician who plays keyboards with his band. He is an announcer at the Prudential Center in Newark, mainly for Seton Hall basketball games. He has a radio show once a week on WOR. He is married and the father of four.
He admits that one of the “hardest parts” of Holiday Express is that he doesn’t get to spend enough time at the holidays with his wife Beth and kids Molly, Jack, Connor and Hannah. “They all volunteer,” he said, “but I don’t get to sit home and watch holiday movies with them.”
McLoone, whose favorite song is “White Christmas,” also admits to getting tired of some holiday songs every once in a while. “Yesterday, we played ‘Nobody Ought to be Alone on Christmas’ 10 times,” he said recently. “I was tired of it then, but then this morning we played it at a school for special needs kids and I have to admit it tugged at my heart … again.”
After 64 events and the playing of countless Christmas songs, does McLoone ever get tired of the holiday season?
“Never!” he replies, a little shocked at the very question.
“I think it’s in my DNA.”