Monday, October 12, 2009

For Don Thurston

Sunday October 11, 2009
Delivered by Bob Collins

I am deeply honored to be asked by the family to speak to you this afternoon about Don Thurston. I've been known to put a couple of words together from time to time, but there's nothing in my experience that has given me the ability to put Don's life -- as I've known it -- into words.

In 1976, I got a letter which said:

"Dear Bob: Thank you for your interest in WMNB. Unfortunately, we have no present positions. We will keep your resume on file. Sincerely, Don Thurston."

I wish I'd saved that letter. But I had so many of them.

Three or four years later, I met his daughter when we worked down at WBEC in Pittsfield, and I didn't care for her that much, and she didn't much care for me. So, naturally, we were married about three years later and I became Don Thurston's favorite son-in-law.

Years later, when I went to work for him, I asked him where he kept that resume and he acknowledged that he didn't.

Life is funny. And life is to be marveled, even when it ends.

A guy grows up in Gloucester of modest means, goes to school to be an electrical engineer, goes to Vermont to work in radio; even does a morning show from a barn -- with a dog -- then strikes out on his own and works his way up to owning a radio station in North Adams, and he put an FM station on the air -- WMNB, which he used to stood for "We May Never Broadcast." And from his home base, he became one of the most influential people in his field in America.

Radio was the medium that united America's communities, and it selected Don Thurston as its leader. He knew mayors, and governors, and presidents, and people who wanted to be president and they knew him by his first name. He could spend a day listening to Yo Yo Ma down at Tanglewood, and another in Nashville swapping tales with Dolly Parton.

But up on the hill here, at the highest point beyond the hairpin turn, there's a red light on top of a tower that flashes: on…and…off. All night. Every night. We refer to it as "Papa's Light." They were going to shut it off a few years ago because it's not required anymore. But pilots over at the airport -- bless their hearts -- asked that it be kept on because when you're flying around in the dark over horrible terrain, it's the beacon that says, "This is where home is. Right over here." So, Don and Cory kept it on.

Like Papa's Light, Don reminded us through his actions and words, that no matter where you are, no matter the route of your life, no matter the terrain you encounter, this is where home is. Right over here.

Lesser men have left the Berkshires and never looked back.

Others have seen success as something you find somewhere else.

Where others saw danger, he saw potential, which is the number one reason why Don saw so much success himself. He saw in us things that we didn't even see in us. Nobody loved our success more than Don. He was loyal to the people who worked for him at those radio stations and they were loyal to him, and to these communities, and that did not happen by accident.

Don Thurston was living proof of what can be accomplished with a bucket-load of optimism and a woman named Oralie.

If you were a contemporary of Don's -- and especially if you were an in-law -- your God-given survival instinct compelled you to a life with a singular purpose: Not to disappoint Don Thurston, a man with that voice that would make you sit up straight.

I say that not to imply that there was a price to be paid from Don for disappointing him; there was a price to be paid from you and your mirror. That's what a role model does. He provides the big shoes. The rest is up to us.

He made us want to be better.

Don was brilliant. He made us want to be brilliant, too.

He was a man of more integrity than any person I've ever met. And he made us want to act with more integrity, too.

Don felt an abiding sense of service to his community, whether it was his church, his city, his county, his college, or his country, and he made us want to serve our communities, too.

Whoever you are and whatever life you've lived, when Don Thurston talked to you, your life was the most interesting in the world -- not because it was some technique of a guy who knew how to close a deal, but because Don found the same wonder in our lives as we found in his. If at times we thought we didn't measure up to our role model, the cure was merely to spend a few minutes with him.

Nobody deserved a happy and healthy retirement more than Don Thurston. But I'm not going to lie to you; he didn't get it. The last few years were a struggle. The last few months were the very definition of "unfair."

They required us then -- and require us now -- to make a withdrawal from a bank account into which Don made a regular deposit of wisdom.

There is a well-embellished parable that says that one day Solomon decided to humble Benaiah, his most trusted minister. He said to him, "Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. It has special powers. If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy."

Benaiah searched for the ring, and finally passed a merchant in Jerusalem, and said, "Have you by any chance heard of a special ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy, and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?"

The elderly man took a plain gold ring from his display and engraved something on it.

Benaiah took the ring back to Solomon, who read the inscription that made his smile disappear. The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band -- Gimel, Zayin, and Yud -- which begin the words "Gam zeh ya'avor." This, too, shall pass.

These words were Don's mantra, and as we reflect on our sorrow today, they can make a sad person happy. For we know that Don was right. This grief will pass.

For now, however, I share it with Oralie. And Allen. And Carolie. And Cory. And Marie.

The largest part of Don Thurston's loving heart was reserved exclusively for his grandchildren.

  • If you didn't know Don Thurston, then meet Sarah, in whom Don's optimism, smile, and wisdom lives.

  • If you didn't know Don Thurston, then meet Tom, in whom Don's dignity, love of family, sense of responsibility, and curiosity lives.

  • If you didn't know Don Thurston, then meet Sean, in whom Don's brilliance, and standard of fairness and justice lives. If your grandfather ever rooted for the Yankees (and I'm not saying he did), then it was only because you did.

  • If you didn't know Don Thurston, then meet Ross, in whom Don's love of music, resilience, and ability to accomplish great things without forgetting his roots lives.

  • If you didn't know Don Thurston, then meet Patrick, in whom Don's ease around people of all stripes, high expectations, joy, and determination to serve others lives.

    If you did know Don Thurston, then today we share a common sense that we have been the luckiest people in the world.

    In this hour… at this moment… this family… this community… this world … has never needed the likes of Don Thurston more.

    He has given us the example of a life well-lived, in service to us.

    Let us vow not to disappoint him.