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Alumnus Tom Equels has done it all, and he’s still not done

Alumnus Tom Equels is the CEO for AIM ImmunoTech, a biotech firm that makes Ampligen.

Alumnus Tom Equels is the CEO for AIM ImmunoTech, a biotech firm that makes Ampligen.

Tom Equels’ many achievements read a bit like the back of an adventure novel—decorated combat pilot, celebrated attorney, philanthropist, international equestrian champion, pharmaceutical CEO, and even a black belt in karate.

Equels’ wide-ranging career has taken him around the world—from the jungles of Vietnam to Florida courtrooms, and even a memorable encounter with dictator Manuel Noriega. But through it all, his work has been united around an unwavering belief that a commitment to justice can change the world.

“All of us can make a difference every day by being who we are and speaking our truth,” Equels said. “We change society one small step at a  time, so long as we always move forward in our march for social justice.”

Equels attended then-Troy State University while stationed at Fort Rucker (now known as Fort Novosel). After returning from Vietnam in 1973 he became a helicopter instructor pilot and also enrolled at TROY to pursue a college degree.

“I picked TROY because it was so convenient,” Equels said. “Classes were right on base. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to do it with my full-time work schedule as an IP. It was super convenient. Also, I had some great teachers from the main campus. The classes were small so there was a lot of personal attention.”

Earning a college degree fulfilled a promise to his mother, who was somewhat dismayed to see Equels forego college scholarships to head to the Army straight out of high school. But he had wanted to be a pilot since the first time he saw a P-51 Mustang as a child, and when the Army sent pilot recruiters to his high school, Equels saw the path to make his dream a reality.

“My senior year, the Army sent out these pilot recruiters and they did a presentation,” he said. “If you could pass a flight aptitude test, you could come into [flight school] right out of high school. Without talking to my parents, I took the test and passed. My mother was apoplectic, but I promised her that when I got back from Vietnam I would get a university degree. TROY enabled me to keep that promise.”

Tom Equels while serving in the U.S. Army.

By the time Equels was 19, he was flying daily combat missions in a Cobra gunship. His service in Vietnam was marked by incredible acts of bravery. Twice Equels was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism during combat, including laying down fire to support the rescue of trapped soldiers while his helicopter was riddled with enemy fire.

Today, Equels sees his service in Vietnam as formative of the value system he would take with him into his later work as a lawyer. Returning to the U.S. after the war, Equels said he was struck by the racial and social inequality he saw at home.  

“I was from Florida and after returning from Vietnam I was stationed in Alabama. Discrimination based on race, gender and religion was still widespread in both these states at that time. Clearly, my fight wasn’t over. I fought in Vietnam with a Cobra gunship, but I knew that in order to make the America I came back to a better place, I needed an education to make a difference. I thank TROY for that.”

Equels graduated from TROY with a Bachelor of Science, summa cum laude, in 1975 and quickly followed that with a Master’s in Criminal Justice in 1976, also from TROY. From there he went on to law school at Florida State University, where he was awarded a Juris Doctor with high honors.

Becoming a lawyer was the second of Equels’ childhood dreams, inspired by spending time after school inside the courthouse as a student in Junior High. The school was adjacent to the county courthouse. Equels started walking home each day with a disabled family friend who ran the concession stand at the courthouse. It meant a lot of time spent after school watching lawyers and judges at work, which left a lasting desire to go into the legal profession. 

Speaking to the Florida Bar Association in 2003, Equels said his experiences in Vietnam left him determined to devote some of his practice to social justice.

“I still think that we can change the world for the better, a little bit at a time, by dealing with everyday matters that are within our power and abilities,” he said. “No matter how difficult things become, the willingness of brave citizens to serve is what counts. Whether serving as a helicopter pilot in combat or serving food at a church soup kitchen for the homeless, our country and our communities depend on such service. It is vital to the preservation of liberty and our democratic institutions.”

Equels devoted a significant portion of his legal work to pro bono cases focused on civil rights. He was awarded the Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award and the Federal Bar Public Service Award, and he received the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Miami’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award. In 2006, Equels and his wife, Laura Fabar, established an endowment at the Florida State University College of Law to teach legal students about the importance of social justice.

Tom Equels and wife Laura Fabar.

A noteworthy moment in Equels’ legal career came in 1992, when he represented the Republic of Panama in a suit against former dictator Manuel Noriega and recovered $44 million in stolen money.

Writing about his experiences with Noriega in an issue of Massachusetts School of Law at Andover legal journal, Equels described his interview with the disgraced former leader of Panama from inside a Miami prison: “He seemed remarkably small and fragile now. It was hard to believe this was the same man who, in response to U.S. demands that he cease and desist from his flagrant support of narcotics trafficking and money laundering, brandished a machete before network cameras and challenged the President of the United States to come on down and do something about it.”

Today, Equels has moved on to a third act of his career, as CEO for AIM ImmunoTech, a biotech firm that makes Ampligen, an experimental drug in clinical trials for the treatment of cancer and Long COVID with chronic fatigue-like conditions. Equels first became aware of Ampligen through his legal work, later became a major investor in the company, and now is the head of the company.

“Long COVID is going to be like a tsunami of disabling disease. It will have a tremendous impact on public health and the social structure,” Equels said. “Ampligen—based on our clinical data to date—may be able to provide hope for people suffering with Long COVID as well as lethal malignancies such as late-stage pancreatic, ovarian and triple-negative breast cancers.”

Even with a long and varied career, Equels has no intention of slowing down—not even when faced with a critical injury. In 2022, Equels suffered a near-fatal pelvic fracture and concussion while horseback riding which put him in a wheelchair and facing months of painful recovery. However, within weeks, he was on his feet and engaged in a form of therapy involving another of his lifelong passions—martial arts. First introduced to martial arts in the military, Equels had previously earned the rank of blue belt. By the end of his recovery, he had earned his black belt and was named one of the Florida Black Belt Association’s 2022 Four Season Tour champions.

“When I woke up from the injury, I assessed my situation and thought to myself, ‘I have too many important things in my life to allow this injury to keep me down’,” he said.

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