SFDS has had its share of “quirky” personalities through the years, but, as far as we are aware, only one who was described as cork-like or “corky”!!
The story of parishioner and Knight of Columbus Thomas V. Lilly seems at first unremarkable: he was born and grew up in Philadelphia, left school after eighth grade, and started as a draftsman in a machine shop, according to the census – possibly employed by his brother-in-law, James Dunton, a Machine Shop Superintendent. In 1897, the two men shared a patent for a bicycle bell. At some point, Lilly joined the Dunton household and moved with his sister and brother-in-law to 920 South 50th Street, where he would spend most of the rest of his life – first with the Duntons and then on his own — until he transferred to a nursing home shortly before he died.
Lilly dreamed of escaping from machine shop work, though, so when Cedar Park opened at 50th and Baltimore in 1911, he took an appointment as its first Park Superintendent. Collier’s magazine reports this left him time for hobbies: “Lilly was an amateur boxer, professional tap dancer and amateur diver before he became a cork. It happened on his fifty-fifth birthday when skeptical friends bound his ankles, knees and wrists with sash cord and tossed him— fully clothed—into a swimming pool. Lilly shucked off the ropes, undressed (to his trunks), wrung out his wet clothes, stored them on his stomach, floated around for a bit, then dressed and swam to the pool ladder.”
Lilly kept escaping. In 1932, he made the news with an exhibition of floating and diving, as “the 65-year-old natator (swimmer) who is still able to show the youngsters a few tricks about the water sport.” Collier’s Magazine reported in 1948 that “Thomas Vincent Lilly of Philadelphia…recently celebrated his eighty-second birthday by asking his neighbors to throw him, bound and gagged, off a diving board. They obliged. Thomas Vincent wiggled out of the ropes in one minute and five seconds. Lilly, a pensioned city employee, modestly discounts any element of risk. “I can’t sink,” he explains. ‘I float all day without twitching a muscle. Doctors have examined me plenty of times but they can’t account for my corkiness.’
In November 1950, Lilly’s obituary noted that he “was famous for his aquatic feats, and demonstrated his ‘Houdini’ rope escape trick in the West Branch YMCA pool two years ago.” Parishioner Joe Ruane, whose Dad had an Electrical shop at 4830 Baltimore Avenue, offers “I don’t know anything about Thomas Lilly, per se. I do recall the legend of a person who did Houdini escapes at the YMCA which in those days was on 52nd Street…The rumor was something I heard from someone in my Dad’s store when I was about 13 or 14.”
Lilly was known for rope tricks in his lifetime, but he surprised with one final stunt as a magician at investments. In June, 1951, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported “for 23 years Thomas V. Lilly…was Superintendent of Cedar Park, a public square at 50th St. and Baltimore Ave. Appointed to the post in 1911 by the Bureau of City Property at a per diem wage of $1.50, he never earned a wage more than $3.75 a day, which he was receiving when he retired in 1934. Yet, through profitable investments in securities and stocks, started with his small savings, he amassed a $50,000 fortune, the bulk of which he bequeathed to charity…” a sizeable amount at the time. Among his bequests was a large sum for St. Francis de Sales Church; in addition, the residue of his estate was willed to Bishop Lamb – then pastor of St. Francis de Sales – “to be used for charitable purposes as he sees fit.”