About 20 years go, Tom Niles was just out of college and spending the day fishing in his 15-foot Boston Whaler off the coast of Massachusetts, out near Boston Light. His motor died, and he couldn’t get it restarted. It was September and a little chilly. The tide was going out, and the sun was starting to set in the distance. He grabbed his handheld VHF radio and called the U.S. Coast Guard for help. A Coast Guard vessel was on its way toward him anyway, bound for Quincy; it stopped, the guardsmen tied his Whaler on, and they towed him to shore.
“I said to the guys, as they dropped me off, ‘Someday I’m going to pay you back, when I can,’” Niles says.
That day arrived in a major way this past March, when Niles—now a real-estate developer—donated $1 million to the Coast Guard Foundation. It was one of the biggest gifts the organization has received since it was founded in 1969, coming on top of having raised $12.5 million in 2019, the foundation’s biggest fund-raising year to date.
The $1 million will be used to create the Thomas H. Niles Education Fund, adding to the Coast Guard Foundation’s scholarship fund for the children of active, retired and fallen Coast Guard members. Last year, that program distributed a little more than $385,000 across 139 scholarships, according to Susan Ludwig, the Coast Guard Foundation’s president. Niles’s donation will not only allow the number of scholarships to grow, but also will let the foundation increase the amounts awarded to recipients.
“It’s incredible,” Ludwig says. “These Coast Guard dependents, one or both of their parents have served as an active duty Coast Guard member. These kids have been moved around every three years. You would be so pleasantly surprised at the caliber of these kids. We have five-way ties with kids who have excelled in every way in their life. A gift like this will change the way we’re able to impact these children.”
The mission of the foundation, which is based in Stonington, Connecticut, is to provide scholarships as well as support for morale programs including recreation, exercise and family-oriented facilities. Regional offices are in Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and St. Petersburg, Florida.
Ludwig met Niles in 2013, when she was the foundation’s regional director for the Northeast. He had already been donating to the Coast Guard Foundation since 2007, simply responding to requests by writing a check and popping it in the mailbox with a stamp. In 2013, she called to thank him for his years’ worth of donations, and he told her the story about how, two decades earlier, the Coast Guard had towed him and his Boston Whaler to safety.
“We met and had lunch that year, and it turned into a tour at the base on Cape Cod about a month later,” she says. “Tom sails down there on a regular basis, and he got a really good view of what his local Coast Guard mission looked like. He then made his first major gift to the organization.”
At that time, the Coast Guard base at Cape Cod had a community center for families that, they both say, had seen far better days. The pool table and dartboards were ragged. The bowling alley and bar, Niles recalls, was outright falling apart. As a developer, he could see a future for the space in his mind’s eye. He envisioned family birthday parties, fun events for adults, and an atmosphere that created a sense of community. “A lot of kids were out there, and I thought it would be something worth resurrecting, to have a decent place for the families to have recreation on site,” he says. With about $40,000 in donations from Niles, that bowling alley was refurbished. It continues to serve as a hub of activity today.
Another program that Niles donated to create over the years involved the Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center, which works with kids from the City of Boston on field science and social emotional learning. Niles wanted the children of locally stationed Coast Guard members to be able to share in that experience too. “They got in canoes and went from island to island around the harbor,” he says. “I got all kinds of thank yous every year from the parents and the children, so I guess they really liked it.”
The million-dollar commitment that Niles made this past March actually began back in 2017, when he committed to a $500,000 planned gift for the Coast Guard Foundation in his will and estate plan. Ludwig says the amount grew to a blended gift of $1 million—some now, some later—after the two of them went to lunch again, at the same place they’d gone when they met in 2013.
“We talked about adding to that gift while he was still alive, and he agreed,” she says. “All I could think of is the amount of impact this man will be making on Coast Guard dependents receiving these scholarships for years and years to come. I got in the car, tried not to do the happy dance in the parking lot, managed to get myself under control, and then I called the office.”
Today, as he’s also putting his own three children through college, Niles is taking on a greater leadership role as a member of the Coast Guard Foundation’s 24-member board of directors. He recently stepped up to that position after serving on the 82-member board of trustees.
And he’s still a boater too: His Sabre 45, Invictus, can often be seen plying the waters between the Cape Cod and Long Island Sound. He still thinks being on the water is a great way to relax.
Niles says he does sometimes feel like he’s the only recreational boater who’s seriously involved with the Coast Guard Foundation, and that he’d like to see that balance of support for the organization change. Most of the people he meets through the foundation are from the shipping and equipment fields, he says, and he’d like to see more recreational boaters participating too, given that the Coast Guard’s mission as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is to patrol and protect the spaces where the ocean meets the land.
“That’s where recreational boaters go out to have fun,” Niles says. “It’s a worthwhile endeavor. These servicemen, I think of the coastline and what they’re doing to protect the United States: It’s a good mission. These people have families and don’t get
paid a lot.”
Ludwig says that given the years’ worth of donations that Niles has made, as well as the expertise he is now lending through his work on the board of directors, he’s exactly the type of role model she’s most grateful to have in the Coast Guard Foundation’s family.
“The world is a good place because of people like Tom Niles,” Ludwig says. “He’s doing the right thing for the right reasons. He’s not only affecting these students for years to come, but he’s like a beacon, showing others how it should be done.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue.