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 Thawleys 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, and the British Invasion was underway.
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, and 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 were now 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 upscale 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 became very popular with the affluent and those aware of the latest trends in fashion.
John dressed Detroit’s top auto executives, like Lee Iacocca, many of Detroit’s professional athletes, and local TV personalities. One year, John was even named “The Best Dressed Man in Detroit” by the Detroit News. Ego almost out of control 🙂
In the mid-70s, 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 disco parties.
Once again, John’s parents were there to help us. His mother and father 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 today, but God, it was fun at the time. We had a blast!
In the fall of 1975, John organized his own disco party. On September 27, he presented “Disco 27” at Pine Knob, a popular concert venue and ski resort located just north of Detroit.
For weeks leading up to the event, it was the talk of the town thanks to John’s legendary promotional skills. It was advertised on the radio and in newspapers, and everyone seemed to be buzzing about it.
To no one’s surprise, the party was a huge success with over 1500 people in attendance. It was a night to remember. A photo was taken that night featuring John, his mom, and dad. John loved this photo and considered it 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 by then. 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 time I visited back home, he would insist that I come stay with him.
During the mid-1980s, 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.
In the 1990s, John and I became close friends again. As a personal computer enthusiast, I was familiar with ARPANET, the network that preceded the internet. Many of us early computer enthusiasts dreamed of having access to this network, but it was a closed system that only a few university computer systems could access, having been developed by the military. There was a government commission, led by Al Gore, to make the network accessible to the public, and we eagerly awaited that day. Finally, in August of 1991, Mr. Gore succeeded, and the network was opened up and renamed “The Internet.” I got an account on the first day!
In the early 1990s, three years before the World Wide Web existed, we had email, Gopher servers, and message boards. When we mentioned the Internet to people, they often had no idea what we were talking about and would ask, “Is it like a CB radio or something?” Late one night, while browsing a message board, I came across a post by someone named JThawley. I wondered if it could be John. The next day, I called him and confirmed that it was indeed him. He was also into computers! This chance encounter sparked a renewed friendship and a new era of interest in exploring the potential of the Internet. John became obsessed with the technology and by 1995 had started his own web design and graphics company called “The Creative Communications Group.” This was the same year that Amazon.com, Craigslist, and eBay launched, two years before Google even existed. At the time, I was living in Atlanta and working on a project to computerize and train employees of AT&T and Georgia-Pacific on how to use their new desktop computers. Although we were working independently, John decided to add my information to his website’s contact page to make the company appear larger and benefit both of our businesses. This was just another example of John’s legendary promotional skills.
It was an exciting time for both of us, despite being miles apart. The technology bonded us again, just like the old band days.
In the following years, he and I collaborated on several web projects. The first significant project was the Detroit Lions website, which John designed and built as 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 okay as long as it was done in 10 days.
When I received the data from the Lions, I started playing around with it. Within a couple of hours, I figured out how to import it into a database, link it to an 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 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 a Microsoft Certified Instructor. 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 CDs 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 loved 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 during the holidays. In 2000, I opened a computer training center, and 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 had a truly impressive client list. He designed and built my website and wouldn’t accept any money, not even a nickel.
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 websites for five speedways owned by Penske Motorsports. They wanted the websites to feature event photos of people and activities taking place on race weekends. So, John was off to the races equipped with a digital camera in hand. As with everything in his life, he took this on with enthusiasm and 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 were great friends until 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 ago, we took a road trip down the Delta Blues Highway through Muscle Shoals, Tupelo, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. John documented our trip in a book of photos which he sent to me for Christmas that year. The book was 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 and stay for 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 the present day. Over three days, we listened and let John do all 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 reading messages from other people who knew him on his Facebook page. Many great things have been written about John, such as him being a teacher and mentor, helping others in many ways, and being funny, sarcastic, and great to know. One message in particular made me laugh: “John suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for perfection.” That is a perfect description of John Thawley. When something piqued his interest, he would become obsessed and learn every detail and nuance on his way to becoming an expert. That is why his suits were world class and 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 miss my friend.
John Thawley Remembered:
Pictured here are a few of John’s friends and family at dinner after his memorial, which had “Standing Room Only.” He would have loved it.
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
John Thawley’s interviewed by Alex Coghe on the Leica Camera Blog