ST. PETERSBURG — It was probably easy to peg Thom Foley as a hippie.
He fit right in over the past 25 years at events like Circus McGurkis, the Times Festival of Reading, Gay Pride or Juneteenth celebrations manning the American Civil Liberties Union booth, bantering on environmental politics or his next canoe trip.
For many of those years, Mr. Foley worked as an exterminator, tenting houses to hold in the poisonous gases. He chatted with customers about termites, whose digestive enzymes he believed would one day create biofuels.
Professors at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where Mr. Foley enrolled in his mid 30s, met the hippie and the blue-collar tradesman, but were much more intrigued by another aspect of Mr. Foley's persona — that of star student.
"I was surprised," said USF St. Petersburg historian Ray Arsenault. "I knew he was smart but I had no idea. I've almost, never had a student where you have to really try to mark up a paper. Every comma was in the right place."
Mr. Foley pecked away at college while working, and had recently completed coursework for a master's degree in Florida studies, also at USF St. Petersburg. An essay he wrote in 2008 on the Hillsborough River won the university's Leland M. Hawes award in Florida history.
For for past five years, he served as president of the Pinellas chapter of the ACLU.
Mr. Foley, who in recent years had been fulfilling his lifelong quest to be a teacher, died Thursday of lung cancer. He was 59.
"He was a rebel, a man of the '60s," Jeffrey Harper told a crowd gathered for a memorial service Monday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg. "He wasn't at Woodstock, but he should have been."
From the sound of it, Mr. Foley did pretty much as he wanted during his youth. He was born in 1954 in Detroit to alcoholic parents whose five children "pretty much raised each other," said Ann Foley, his sister.
He was an attentive big brother, teaching Ann how to write reports on books that didn't exist or to skip school altogether.
"He showed me how to hop a train and jump off at Second Street," said Ann Foley, 56. "Once, I made it but he didn't, and wound up in Chicago."
His junior high school suspended him indefinitely until he cut his hair. Instead, he simply matriculated to high school but dropped out. After hitchhiking the country with his brother Jim, Mr. Foley arrived in St. Petersburg in 1977, hair down to his waist.
He was one of the first white members of the Black Panther Party in his hometown, and later celebrated his daughter's fourth birthday by joining the National Organization for Women.
In St. Petersburg, Mr. Foley worked for an exterminator, ran his own business for a couple of years and returned to his former employer. He got his high school degree, then enrolled in what is now St. Petersburg College. In 1991 at the State Theatre, he acted in Comstock Rassles Lysistrata, a parody on censorship written by an SPC professor celebrating the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights. The next year he married Veronica Rotondo, who was also in the play. The marriage lasted about a dozen years.
His senior honors thesis at USF St. Petersburg, on termites, earned the only A-plus grade Arsenault said he had given in 20 years.
"We've received hundreds of theses, and it was right at the top," Arsenault said.
Mr. Foley left the extermination business for jobs at Eckerd College, leading canoe trips for the school's Elderhostel program and in recent years teaching English to foreign students through the ESL program.
He led the Pinellas ACLU chapter and represented Pinellas County in the state organization, the fourth largest in the country.
"I thought he was a very effective chapter president who showed the most energy of anyone in that position since I first joined in 1984," said lawyer Bruce Howie, 60, who chairs the chapter's legal panel. "He was not as doctrinaire as some speakers may have suggested but he was a solid, true believer in civil liberties, and it's improbable that we'll see his like for a long while."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.