Remembering my friend, John Thiele (1920-2012)
“Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.”
–Lewis Mumford (1895-1990)
Editor’s Note: With this column, The Light welcomes Blayney Colmore, writer-in-residence at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and his essays on life. Colmore periodically sends his columns to friends and family under the heading “Notes From Zone 10” (or from the planting Zone 4 in Vermont where he resides in the summers) and has agreed to share them with all of us.
On a Monday morning 13 years ago, the San Diego Union ran this picture on its front page, taken the previous afternoon by an enterprising photographer from a rented helicopter. A favorite local sport is diving into the curl of a wave darkened by schools of harmless but impressive looking leopard sharks, as horrified tourists look on.
It was a couple of days before we all realized the swimmer in the picture was John Thiele, a luminary in my wife Lacey’s and my life these past 25 years. He died Jan. 28, leaving a space in the world so unaccustomed, so sweet it will never be filled.
John may not have known that he rescued not only our move West, but maybe our marriage. Lacey was as drawn to Southern California winter and the ocean as we all are, but she was a Connecticut Yankee and an interior designer with a passion for early American furniture. Just as it looked like we might have to abort our California adventure, John Thiele offered Lacey a job at their family design firm. John and Ross Thiele & Son (John was the son, the 80-year-old business is now run by his equally talented daughter Elizabeth) wonderfully filled the void in Lacey’s world, turning around our retreat.
John was, nearly to the day, 20 years my senior, and many times I told him I studied him as if I was being given a look at what lay ahead, only more graceful and generous than I dared hope for myself.
Though he suffered his share of the insults of aging – skin cancers, prostate, failing joints – he was first in the studio every morning, cheerily greeting the younger designers. Always nattily dressed, never in the studio without a tie, his elegance was inborn, not studied. His children – and now grandchildren, and, for goodness sake, great-grandchildren – put John and Lavinia through their paces as strenuously as families since the ‘60s all have, and he treated each of them as a surprising miracle with gifts he hadn’t imagined and loved.
I especially admired the seemingly relaxed way he turned the business over to Elizabeth several years ago, immediately shifting his role from boss to associate, never passing up an opportunity to talk about the superb job she was doing.
As a young naval officer about to ship out to the Pacific, John married Lavinia and she became the mark by which he got his bearings. Like most devoted husbands, he was sure he would die first, and when Lavinia was diagnosed five years ago with pancreatic cancer, everyone feared it would take John down.
We should have known better. He was a brick through her illness, tending her with the exquisite care he gave to everyone he loved, right up to her death on Thanksgiving Day four years ago.
Several months later he began to fail in ways that made his family realize he had held himself intact heroically for Lavinia. His own gradual, gentle fade provided one more model for me, should I be asked to carry on for 20 more years.
The picture of John swimming with sharks – which I have on my desk – put me in mind of the ceremony the surfing community has adopted to mark the death of one of their own. A month ago Ted Smith, a stalwart of the hardcore surfers at WindanSea, 20 years younger than I, had a heart attack while on his board, and drowned. Several days later, more than a hundred of his compatriots paddled out, formed a circle, held hands and spoke of him as his ashes were returned to the source of our being.
When I next swim into a school of leopard sharks it will be with a heart overflowing with thanksgiving for John Thiele, my friend, my teacher.
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