This Hall of Famer coached San Joaquin Memorial’s hoops team to many championships

Tom Cleary prepares men at Poverello House’s resident program to take the GED.
Tom Cleary prepares men at Poverello House’s resident program to take the GED. FRESNO BEE

Tom Cleary had a lifelong love of teaching, both in the classroom and on the basketball court.

He influenced many of his students at San Joaquin Memorial High School to become teachers, led the 1968-69 basketball team to the school’s first championship title and coached two of the area’s top high school basketball players. In retirement, he tutored homeless men.

Fresno Bee

Mr. Cleary, 77, who was also a Fresno County Athletic Hall of Fame inductee, died Saturday in Fresno after a battle with cancer.

“We celebrated our 49th year together in August,” said his wife, Marilyn. “I met more people, went more places than I probably would have because of him. It was wonderful.”

And she learned about basketball. “He could break it down and show you plays and you could spot it” on the court when the team was playing, Marilyn Cleary said.

Mr. Cleary was born in Visalia on Sept. 26, 1939 but later moved to Fresno because his parents wanted him to attend parochial school at Memorial. There, Mr. Cleary played basketball under legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian and forged a friendship that continued until Tarkanian’s death in 2015.

Mr. Cleary graduated in 1957 and attended Saint Mary’s College of California on a basketball scholarship but transferred to San Francisco State University where he graduated with a degree in education. He would later earn a master’s degree at Cal Poly.

The new teacher started his career at Memorial teaching history and government and held other positions including department chairman and athletic director. He served as head basketball coach from 1968 to 1978, ending with a 195-78 record. Under his leadership, the school won six North Sequoia League titles, three California Interscholastic Federation Central Section Championships and won the Tournament of Champions in 1972 and 1973. He coached Clifton and Roscoe Pondexter, who both went on to play professional basketball.

Mr. Cleary left Memorial in 1978 to dabble in real estate, but in the 1980s he returned to teaching at Fresno High School, where he coached the girls junior varsity basketball team. He retired in 2004 and served as a volunteer tutor at the Poverello House, helping men and women prepare for the GED exam.

“My dad was a very selfless person. He was always thinking of others,” said daughter Nicole Palmer of Fresno.

Mr. Cleary stood out not only because he was 6 feet 8 inches tall. He received a number of awards over the years, including California High School Basketball Coach of the Year in 1972 and the Fresno Bee’s All-Metro Basketball Coach of the Year in 1970 and 1973. He received a Fresno County Board of Education Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 and was inducted into the Fresno County Athletic Hall of Fame in 2014.

“He was like a big teddy bear” who knew how to communicate with people and dedicated his time to helping them, said Bob Barnett, Central Section historian. “He had a big heart.”

BoNhia Lee: 559-441-6495, @bonhialee

Tom Cleary

Born: Sept. 26, 1939

Died: Sept. 16, 2017

Occupation: School teacher, basketball coach at San Joaquin Memorial High School

Survivors: Wife, Marilyn; daughters, Nicole and Michelle; four grandchildren

Services: Recitation of the Holy Rosary, 7 p.m. Sept. 29, St. Paul Catholic Newman Center, 1572 E. Barstow Ave., Fresno. Memorial and Celebration of Life Mass, 12:30 p.m. Sept. 30 at the center.

Remembrances: Poverello House, 412 F St., Fresno, 93706, San Joaquin Memorial High School, 1406 N. Fresno St., Fresno, 93703, St. Helen’s Catholic Church, 4870 E. Belmont Ave., Fresno, 93727.