PROVINCETOWN — Thomas Neal Donegan, who chaired the Provincetown Board of Selectmen during the tumultuous period leading to the firing of Police Chief Jeff Jaran and who later steered the town’s purchase of Harbor Hill, died on July 14, 2021 in Manhattan. The cause was leptomeningeal disease brought on by esophageal cancer. He was 61.
Donegan changed Provincetown’s housing and health landscape in two important ways during his six years on the select board. In 2016, he spearheaded what became a multi-year process to get the town to buy Harbor Hill, the bankrupt West End time-share complex, to create 28 market-rate rental apartments for year-round residents. The $8.1-million project was held up by legal and financial challenges. But it is now completely renovated and fully occupied, and it has a waiting list for tenants.
Also in 2016, Donegan pushed for the creation of a community navigator program, which became a $100,000 line item in the town budget. The funds are used to hire a staff person or outside agency to help residents with intractable mental health, substance abuse, and housing issues.
Donegan’s husband of 38 years, Mark Weinress, said this week that Tom’s leadership skills came from his lifelong desire to help people.
“He was very honest,” Weinress said. “He had a lot of beliefs, but he did not have a personal agenda. He wanted what was best for the town and managed not to get terribly angry with people who disagreed with him.”
Thomas Donegan was born in Los Angeles on Jan. 21, 1960. His father, Jim, was a pilot for Trans World Airlines. His mother, Glorian Gainey, was a South Carolina native and homemaker, and later a real estate agent.
After graduating from George Washington University and working for several companies, he took a chance and joined America Online, then an internet pioneer. In 1995, Tom was like about 80 percent of Americans, who had never been online. He became vice president of membership marketing, managing a team that increased total membership from 3 million in 1995 to more than 37 million. When he left the company in 2008, he was one of its longest serving employees.
In 1990, Donegan and Weinress were attacked in an anti-gay hate crime in Washington, D.C. Theirs was the first case successfully tried under the District’s new hate crimes law. As a result of that experience, Tom joined a new grassroots group, Gay Men and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV). It provided community safety education and advocated for accountability from the police and news media in recognizing and addressing anti-LGBTQ violence.
Tom soon became GLOV’s co-chair and was known as the “activist in the suit,” since he rarely had time to change out of business attire before being interviewed by the press, sometimes on TV, and attending public meetings.
Tom also served as president of Crisis Link, a Virginia-based crisis and suicide prevention hotline.
His involvement with community policing and mental health would come in handy when he and Mark moved to Provincetown in 2009.
Not long after joining the Provincetown Finance Committee, Tom became concerned about the cost of constructing a proposed police station and the zealous campaigning for the project by then-Police Chief Jaran.
The night Donegan was elected to the select board in 2013, Jaran was at the Squealing Pig bar and became enraged by an N.W.A. song on the bartender’s playlist that derided the police in crude language. Jaran ordered his officers to collect the names of witnesses at the bar, even though no crime had apparently been committed.
Jaran’s behavior that night, as well as his having ordered his staff to campaign for a pro-police-station select board candidate, soon obsessed the town. Donegan was outspoken in his criticism of the chief and the town manager at the time, Sharon Lynn, who resigned under a cloud because of her role in the Jaran affair.
Jaran was ultimately fired by Donegan’s select board. The former chief sued the town and received a $512,797 settlement.
Donegan’s criticism of Jaran and Lynn was seen as ruthless and divisive by some. Resident Rob Tosner told the Cape Cod Times in 2013 that Donegan and other Jaran and Lynn detractors discouraged “good people from working for this town.”
But after the dust settled, Donegan acted to restore civility, said David Panagore, who was hired to replace Lynn as town manager.
“When I was hired, I sat down with Tom for hours and he explained the town to me,” Panagore said this week. “He was very focused on increasing the amount of communication out of town hall and making sure town staff was cohesive and not at each other’s throats,” said Panagore. “He wanted to lower the temperature of community debates.”
Donegan and Weinress met at George Washington University. Soon after becoming a couple, they attended their first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Weinress said he was only 23 at the time, but already had the beginnings of liver damage. Both had drunk heavily until that first meeting, after which they never touched alcohol again.
“And that is, honestly, a miracle,” Weinress said. “All I can say is it was God.”
On a trip to London, Donegan spotted a plaque that perfectly summed up his gratitude and faith. He bought two, one for each of their Provincetown and New York homes. The saying became his motto: “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”
Besides his husband, Tom is survived by his younger brother, Ned.
His funeral will be at 11 a.m. on Thursday, July 22 at St. Mary of the Harbor in Provincetown, with a reception to follow. Burial at Provincetown Cemetery will be private.
Charitable contributions in Tom’s memory may be made to the Carrie A. Seaman Animal Shelter (CASAS), Outer Cape Health Services, the Fine Arts Work Center, or the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod. To leave a message of condolence for the family, visit gatelyfuneralservice.com.
At a recent Provincetown Select Board meeting, member Louise Venden expressed her gratitude for Donegan’s dedication to housing, people of color, and essential workers.
“All of us in this town are better off for Tom’s tireless public service,” she said.