I knew John Thawley longer than I have known my youngest brother; we were friends for 54 years.
One day when I was 16 years old, I was driving around in the family station wagon, enjoying my newly acquired driver’s license, when I came across a kid hitchhiking.
I pulled over and picked up the 14-year-old John Thawley. I had no particular place to go so I told him: I’ll give you a ride home. We headed off to his house and to the start of a lifelong friendship.
When we arrived he invited me in and I met his family for the first time.
I learned that the Thawley’s were recent arrivals from Grimsby, U.K. – a small English town about 2 hours East of Liverpool.
The year was 1964. The Beatles had just landed; the British Invasion was under way. AND WOW! THESE PEOPLE WERE FROM ENGLAND!
For this 16-year-old Beatle fan and wannabe rock star, this seemed to be a life-changing event. As it turned out, it was. I became a permanent fixture at John’s house.
We would spend hours listening to music on his Dad’s high-end stereo system. The sound was amazing. Stereo music was relatively new and a lot of our albums weren’t even in stereo yet. So this was a really big thing!
John’s Mom was a kind gentle soul, sweet and always welcoming. She quickly became my second mom.
The Band Days
John fancied himself as a singer; I had been playing guitar for a couple of years so we decided we should start a band. That Christmas John got a Fender Bass Guitar, Amplifier and 3 microphones. We now were ready and excited to launch our musical careers. Along with Greg Perkins and Tony Spalla “The Plagues” rock band was formed.
We played and practiced for hours at John’s house. How his parents lived through the noise and the learning curve, I will never know. They seemed to love it as much as we did and eventually, we got to be pretty good.
We earned 2nd place in the Detroit Music Center Battle of the Bands competition and started getting paying gigs, “We were Pro’s“
In 1969 we went to the Saugatuck Pop Festival in my Volkswagen Bus.
I don’t remember too much about that weekend, it was 1969; we were at a pop festival; in a Volkswagen bus. I’ll let you take it from there.
The one thing I do remember clearly was John, sitting in my bus, trying to teach himself to play “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the guitar.
He would start; get it wrong, stop and start again. This went on all day, hour after hour. The starting, the stopping, we had to get away from it; so we all left the bus to put some distance between ourselves and John.
John’s persistence could be annoying, but the payoff was always big. By the end of that weekend, John had not only mastered the song, but also taught me how to play it.
As the 60s turned into the 70s
John and the rest of us put our band and hippie days behind us to begin our careers. John went into the clothing business when he was 17 years old. At 24, John opened his own clothing store in up-sale Birmingham Michigan. It was called John Thawley Couturier.
We were all excited about John’s store; it was like all of us were getting our own store. His ability to create excitement and fun had us all pitching in to do the grunt work to help him get the store opened. Of course, John brought in an interior designer to make the space stunning. As John would say, “I had him trick it out,” and it turned out beautiful.
John Thawley Couturier sold extravagantly priced, custom made suits and accessories. John designed the suits and Lou Miles made them to his specifications in Toronto. Within a year, the store was very popular with the affluent and those aware of the latest trends in fashion.
John was dressing Detroit’s top auto executives, like Lee Iacocca, many of Detroit’s professional athletes, and local TV personalities. Even Telly Savalas, star of the CBS police drama “Kojak,” was a regular customer at John’s store.
When most people watched Kojak, they noticed the bald detective’s trademark sucker. When we watched, Kojak, we were looking for John’s signature peak lapels on a perfectly fitted double-breasted suit or sport coat.
A couple of years John was even named, “The Best Dressed Man in Detroit” by the Detroit News.
(Warning: Ego almost out of control)
The Disco Days
In the mid-70’s, Detroit was dancing to the beat of Disco music. It was the music of the day. Everyone was getting dressed up and going out to clubs and to Disco parties.
Once again, John’s parents were there to help us. His Mom and Dad were professional ballroom dancers. They were well known and competed nationally. They also taught classes and I badly needed a class. So, I signed up and John’s Mom taught me to dance.
Dressed in Thawley suits and equipped with some fancy dance moves learned from John’s Mom, we were ready to hit the streets to go clubbing. Tony Manero had nothing on us.
I know Saturday Night Fever might look silly now but God it was fun at the time. We had a blast!
In the fall of 1975 John threw his own Disco party. On September 27, John Thawley presented, Disco 27 at Pine Knob, a popular concert venue and ski resort just north of Detroit.
For weeks leading up to the event you heard about it everywhere. It was the buzz of the town thanks to John’s legendary promotional savvy. You heard about it on the radio and read about it in the newspapers. Everyone seemed to be talking about it.
To no one’s surprise, it turned out to be a huge success with over 1500 people attending. It was definitely a night to remember.
This photo was taken that night of John and his Mom and Dad. John loved this photo; it was one of his favorites.
Birmingham Michigan is known as Midtown and John Thawley became known as “Mister Midtown.” The kid was becoming a star. Oh boy, for those of you who knew him later in life, I’m sure you can imagine just how big his head had become now, Wow!
I have to confess, it was pretty impressive that my 25-year-old friend was doing so well.
I left Detroit in 1981 but over the next 10 years we would touch base a few times a year, always at Christmas. We used to laugh at how it seemed we would just pick up where we left off. Every visit back home he would insist I come stay with him.
During the mid-1980’s
I became obsessed with personal computers and John with radio-controlled model car racing.
John’s natural leadership and charisma propelled him to an executive position in the sports “National Organization”. He headed up the organization doing promotions, putting together races, sponsors, and events nationwide.
John and I became really tight again in the 1990’s.
Being a personal computer enthusiast I was aware of a network by the name of ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet. All of us early computer enthusiast dreamed of a connection to this network, but it was a closed system which was developed by the military and available to only a few university computer systems.
There was a government commission headed up by Al Gore to make the network open to the public and we were all waiting in anticipation for that day to come. Finely, in August of 1991; Mr. Gore was successful, the network was opened up and renamed “The Internet.” I had an account the first day!
This was early days, three years before the World Wide Web was even a thing. We had Email, Gopher Servers and Message Boards. When you told people about the Internet, they would look at you with glazed eyes and ask, “Is it like a CB radio or what?”
I was up late one night, browsing a message board, when a name popped out at me. It was a message posted by JThawley. Could it be John? I called him the next day and sure enough, it was John.
He was into computers too!
This chance encounter launched a hole new era of interest and renewed friendship between John and me. We were off to the races, exploring this new frontier, building and buying bigger and faster computers.
As with all things that John became involved with, he became obsessed with the technology. By 1995 he had started a web design and graphics company called ” The Creative Communications Group.” Keep in mind; this was the same year that Amazon.com, Craigslist and eBay went live on the Internet. Two years before there was a Google!
I was living in Atlanta working on a project to computerize and train the employees of AT&T and Georgia-Pacific on how to use their newly installed desktop computers.
Even though we were working independently from one another, John decided that he would add my information to his website contact page. He thought by having two locations; Detroit and Atlanta it would make the company look bigger and be good for both of our businesses. Another example of the legendary promotional savvy of John Thawley.
It was an exciting time for both of us. Even though we were miles apart the technology bonded us again just like the old band days.
Over the next few years he and I teamed up on several web projects, the first big one was the Detroit Lions. John designed and built the first NFL Detroit Lions website.
John pulled me in to work on the project. My piece was building several hundred web pages to display all of the team’s statistics. If you’re a football fan you know that every-time somebody touches the football, a stat is generated. There were thousands of them per year and they wanted two years’ worth on the site, plus weekly updates.
You have to remember, it was 1996, long before any of today’s common web technologies were invented. Everything back then had to be precisely hand coded.
John figured it would take me a week of heads down programming to knock this piece out and I was going to be paid by the hour. If I ran over a little that would be OK as long as it was done in 10 days.
When I received the data from the Lion’s, I started playing around with it. Within a couple of hours, I figured out how to import it into a database, link it to a HTML generator and dump it out as finished pages. Within five or six hours, I had completed the task that he had budgeted a week of programming time to complete.
I uploaded the completed work to the server; called John and told him I was done. John freaked out – “What do you mean you’re done?” he asked. I told him, “go look; it’s live on the server.” He pulled it up and there it was, done in a day!
He’s said, ‘Dude, how did you do that?’
John and I always had a bit of competition going on between us. So, I took the opportunity to boast a bit and told him “That’s just what I do JT. The best part is, you don’t have to pay me for a week of programming.”
I will never forget his response. He replied, “Oh no, don’t ever sell yourself short, you’re selling your knowledge, this is beautiful man, you’re getting paid every dime.” And that’s what he did. He paid me for a full week of programming, every dime.
John loved to be wowed and when he was, money was no object. I can almost hear him say, “ Wow! I’ll take two!”
A Surprise from John
I was studying to become Microsoft Certified. When I passed my first exam it seemed that John was just as thrilled about me passing, as I was.
Shortly after taking and passing the test, out of the blue, he sent me a new Fender Stratocaster exactly like the one I played back in the band days.
The card said, Congratulations Brother, and was signed John. I was stunned and completely caught off guard. Of course he got himself one too. That was John Thawley, if one was good, two was better. He could give one to a friend and then have a friend to enjoy it with.
At Christmas he would make curated Christmas Music on Cassettes and CD’s and send them out to his friends. The music mix was always great and the CD cases were beautifully designed by John, with Holiday Greetings.
John love to say, “Tis the Season to be Thawley”
His Facebook post on Christmas Day of 2009 reveals a whole lot about his character.
He posted a story about him and his adopted son, Marlon, going to a small RV park of lesser fortunate migrant workers and giving a kid that lived there Marlon’s, one-year-old bike for Christmas. An incredible story, you should look it up.
This wasn’t a one-off event
Several years, around Thanksgiving, John would load up his car with turkeys and he and Marlon would go to that same RV Park. They would look for a house with kid’s toys outside, stop and leave a turkey on the porch, knock on the door and run back to the car, moving on to the next house.
At Christmas, John would break into “full on” Santa Claus mode. And it wasn’t just on the holidays…
In 2000, I open a computer-training center. John offered to do the graphics and web design for my new business. I was thrilled! John had achieved world-class recognition for his web design work and he had a truly impressive client list. He designed and built my website and wouldn’t accept any money. He wouldn’t take a nickel.
Up Next Photography
John was always a serious enthusiast of photography. In the 1970s he built a small studio in his basement to take portrait shots. Of course he spent a small fortune on the camera, lenses, lighting, light meter, backdrops, and god knows what else. I remember him saying, “If it turns out bad it will be because of me, not because I skimped on the equipment.” A visit to John’s house in those days always included a visit to his studio for several portrait shots and an in-depth explanation of each piece of his photography equipment. He loved his gadgets and things.
In the 1990s’ he was managing the web sites for five speedways owned by Penske Motorsports. They wanted the web sites to feature event photos of people and activities taking place on race weekends. So, John was off to the races equipped with digital camera in hand.
As with everything in his life, he took this on with enthusiasm, commitment and became a great, well known professional – sublime photographer.
His racing images have been featured in print for companies such as Acura, Cadillac, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lexus, Maserati, Mazda, and in the pages of Autoweek, USA Today, SportsCar, Vette and others. His work will be remembered for years to come.
John’s interview on the Leica Camera website tells the complete story. It’s in John’s words and a great read!
John and I remained friends to the end
Over the past 15 years we met up several times when he came to Atlanta to shoot the American Le Mans Series. A few years back we took a road trip down the Delta Blues Highway through Muscle Shoals, Tupelo and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Of course, John made a book of the photos documenting our trip. He sent me a copy for Christmas that year. It is signed with the Beatles lyrics, “You and I have memories, longer than the road that stretches out ahead.” Merry Christmas, John.
He was always a great friend
In the spring of 2018 we had our last visit. It was after his long hospital stay and just before he started chemo. Greg Perkins (of the Plagues) and I were able to come visit and stay a few days. The three of us joked about having The Plagues Reunion Tour. Greg and I spent hours listening to John tell his life story. From leaving England to present day he told it all. Over three days we listened and let John do all of the talking. He told us his story of a life rich in experiences, friendships and his never-ending search for fun. What a wonderful life story he had to tell.
Since John’s passing
I have spent a lot of time on his Facebook page reading messages from the other people that knew him. Many great things are written there about John, like…
John was a teacher and mentor
John helped me in so many ways
John was funny, sarcastic and great to know
This one made me laugh:
” John suffers from Obsessive compulsive dysfunction disorder for perfection “
Nailed it, that is a perfect description of John Thawley. When something piqued his interest, he would definitely become obsessed, learning every detail and nuance on his way to becoming an expert. That is why….
His suits were world class.
His web work was beautiful and years ahead of its time.
His love of coffee demanded that Illy Espresso be delivered to his door in nitrogen-sealed cans and brewed with his $8,000 expresso machine.
He taught me to think big, reach high and never sell myself short. He also taught me to play Strawberry Fields Forever. I will miss him for the rest of my life.
John Thawley Remembered:
This is a few of John’s friends and family at dinner after his memorial. The memorial had “Standing Room Only.” He would have loved it.
The IMSA Tribute to John’s “Faces of the Races“
Peter DeLorenzo remembers John.
John Thawley’s work ” Exploring Speed and Light “
John’s Apple Aperture Presentation which he delivered at Apples’ flagship San Francisco store in the summer of 2011.
John Thawley on Vimeo
John’s space on FlickR
John Thawley on Facebook
John Thawley on Pinterest
95Customs an interview with John Thawley
John Thawley’s interviewed by Alex Coghe on the Leica Camera Blog