So here is the story of Thor, in three acts.
In the first act, we will see that Thor was an unusual child.
There is no denying that Thor Hesla was a wierd kid. He was born on April 1st, which should have been a warning to us all. In elementary school and in high school, he was a horror of a little brother. He was unconventional and non-conformist, generally the most embarassing person to be seen with socially. Even then, he had strong, unshakeable opinions which he shared whether youíd asked him to or not. For reasons I could not begin to fathom, he followed me and my friends around, like a puppy, but not as cute. He had a small tight circle of companions that he met in second grade to whom he was endlessly loyal -- everyone else he alienated. I vividly remember walking down the halls of Briarcliff High School one day, and looking into an 8th grade algebra class. Every student was in their seat with their eyes on the blackboard, watching Ms. Bush solve an equation. Every student except for Thor. He was in the back row, reading Bullfinchís mythology. The book was propped up on his desk; he didnít even pretend to be paying attention. Mythology was interesting, algebra was not, and he had made his choice. It was an attitude that produced hilarious report cards, with grades of either A or D. There were no Bs, and only the occasional pity C.
He applied for early admission to Brown University in Rhode Island, convinced that his off-the-chart SAT scores would compensate for his grades. It was quite the shock when he got back the skinny envelope, the letter that said youíre not good enough. He had no fallback plan and was briefly considering a career in the service sector. (ďWould you like fries with that or would you rather discuss the significance of the 12th immam in suuni and shiite sects?Ē) It wouldnít have been pretty. Happily, his cousin Mark Hesla was driving through Atlanta, on his way to his sophomore year at St. Olaf College in Northfield Minnesota. St. Olaf, where Grandpa Otto met Grandma Alma; where David Hesla met Mary Stegnar; where Thorís uncles Stephen, and Tim, and Aunt Mary Margaret Hesla went to college. ďHop in!Ē said Mark. ďMarch on up to the admissions desk and tell them youíre a Hesla and say grace in Norwegian. Theyíll have to admit you.Ē And -- bizarrely -- they did. Our father had roomed with Morrie Ormseth, and Uncle Steve had roomed with Mylo Ormseth and Uncle Tim had roomed with some other Ormseth. So it should have been no surprise that Thorís freshman year room mate was Vaughn Ormseth, and providence was served.
In the second act, Thor bursts out of his shell, and the whole God of Thunder thing goes to his head.
St. Olaf was the first of many turning points for Thor. He found kindred spirits and blossomed. He made friends in those two years who were his for life. On a campus that did not allow alcohol, he rigged an elaborate pully system to foist kegs of beer onto dormitory rooftops. With his cousin he hosted a radio show -- Mark Hesla and Vanilla Thunder. Surrounded by people who looked just like him, he started to find his own individual voice. It was, at the time, an acerbic voice, a witty voice, an occasionally mean voice, but always articulate and confident and passionate. After two years at St. Olaf he opted to save money and transferred to Emory University where he again found his fellows. He discovered rugby, a sport that seems uniquely well suited to Thor as it rewards guts and comraderie more than grace and agility.
Thor graduated from Emory with a major in English and Philosophy, making himself virtually unemployable. For a few years he wandered in the wilderness -- well actually he slept on Howard Yellenís couch in San Francisco. By now Iíd found my way into Democratic politics, and to my complete and utter annoyance, Thor followed me once again. He worked in transportation for the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta and began working in campaigns, starting in field and working up to campaign manager in numerous congressional races. Iíd gone ahead of him, and so he frequently faced the question -- Thor Hesla -- are you by chance Marenís brother?
His management style might generously be called Tough Love. I know that Thor 4.0 looked back at Thor 2.0 and winced. He could be unbearably harsh and he had no tolerance for fools. There was no filter at all between his brain and his mouth -- if he thought it, he said it. He could well have become just another arrogant white boy, but his acerbic wit was always tempered by his boundless enthusiasm, his extraordinary generosity, his genuine love for the cause. He walked into a room, and the energy level went up. He believed in the sanctity of the To Do list, and the fundamental importance of Positive Energy. He believed to his core that a happy campaign was a good campaign.
His resume included managing 8 congressional races; "Clinton Gore Advance", the Presidential Inaugural Committee; and Iowa operations director for Bill Bradley. It was somewhere in the 90s that people stopped asking Thor if he was Marenís brother. Instead, with increasing frequency I found myself admitting -- yes, yes, Iím Thorís sister. This was the period -- when he could still be somewhat harsh -- that I became known as The Good Hesla.
It was also during these years that he began the tradition of the Big Letter -- his yearly epistle to the masses. One of Thorís most remarkable achievements was that he never lost a friend. If you crossed his path, and he thought you were interesting, he never let go of you. He called you; he emailed you; he looked you up if he was in your town, whether that town was Dublin or Dubuque or Dubai. Every new assignment brought a new group of friends, but he never let go of the old friends. As of this morning, over 22,000 people had visited his memorial website -- rememberthor.com.
It is at this point in the narrative of a young manís life that the narrator usually gets to say: And then he met the Love of His Life. Instead, Thor met Michael Pitts. Michael was running transportation for the Convention and Thor was a young flunkie. They could so easily have hated each other. They were both outsized personalities with large voices and dominating manners. I see them as two sumo wrestlers entering a ring, circling each other. But instead of going for the throw down, they joined arms, jumped the ring, and plowed through the crowd, trampling a few spectators along the way. ďCome on! Follow us! Weíll work really really hard and then weíll have fun.Ē And they did work hard -- at two national conventions, at the Olympics, at the Goodwill Games. They were the most improbable of partnerships -- Thor brought order to Michaelís chaos; Michael brought affability to Thorís sharp edges. They were like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, except much bigger, and bi-racial, and all male, and utterly graceless. OK, they were nothing like Fred and Ginger. They were nothing like any other parternship I know, but when they walked into a bar together, the entire room gravitated to them and the laughter grew uncontrollably loud.
In Act the third, Thor takes a few deep breaths.
Frequently fatherhood is the great mellower of men, but in Thorís case it was Unclehood. He doted on his niece and nephew, Olivia and David. His love for them was unbounded and unconditional; and it softened him. It was so easy for us to look at them, a girl two years older than her brother, and see ourselves. Thor never missed an opportunity to spend time with them, teaching them to throw a frisbee, helping them learn to ride a bike. Of all the reasons I grieve my brotherís death, nothing makes me sadder than his absence from their future.
He was a devoted, but cantankerous, son. When Dad announced his interest last summer in visiting New York City to see a sculpture exhibit at MOMA, it was Thor who made the travel arrangements, who travelled with Dad, who navigated the Big City like the advance pro that he was. There was nothing he would not have done for his father.
And I can say, with due consideration of all the men I know, that he was the best brother in the history of the world. Thor celebrated my victories and mourned my defeats. He was my biggest cheerleader, my confidente and my best friend. His great friendship with Bernard was a joy, and the three of us shared an extraordinary relationship of respect and love. I donít know anyone else who had what we three did.
Thorís most recent big adventure was his time in Kosovo. In that unlikely setting, I think he finally became fully comfortable with himself. He was -- itís hard to say this -- wiser. He managed to become more mature without losing his sense of fun, his joy in the absurd. He found a voice that was funny, without being harsh. He loved his colleagues there, rejoicing in weekly games of ultimate frisbee, and travelling to Greece, France, Turkey, England and more. He managed to become kinder and gentler while retaining his wit. Perhaps itís not surprising that it was the kinder gentler Thor who rediscovered the heartthrob of his youth, his great good friend Stephanie Dorscher, his travel companion, his daily correspondent, his long distance valentine.
Of all the relational ways that I can be described -- Davidís daughter, Bernardís wife, Olivia and Davidís mom -- it turns out, at the end of the day, that the moniker that most defines me is Thorís sister. And I know that for many of us being Thorís friend has been an important part of who we are. So now Iím trying to figure out how to be Thorís sister, without Thor. I think I do that by celebrating every day who he was. By holding onto that generous spirit, to that enormous heart, to that joy. Long after the TSA made flying an ordeal, Thor continued to enjoy getting on airplanes. To him, every trip was the opportunity for a new adventure and he loved them all. The last time I saw him was at Dulles airport, when I dropped him off for the plane to Kabul. He gave me an envelope, with a letter he had dashed off. ďJust a few things you should know,Ē he said. ďYou know, if things donít work out.Ē So on Monday, I opened the envelope. Handwritten on the front it said, ďSic transit gloria.Ē If your Latin is a little rusty, thatís roughly Thus Passes the Glory. Inside were some financial instructions, and this note:
Hereís a quick letter, just in case -- Oh Gruesome Thought! -- I get blown up or something else bad happens and I AM DEAD.
1. Have a party. Invite my friends. Give away my books.
2. Thanks for being a great sister. Youíre the best.
3. David and Oliva: Thank you thank you thank you. Such a great niece and nephew! Lucky me!
4. Dad, Bernard, Michael J, everyone: thanks very much! Such a nice life! So much fun!
Remarks at the funeral of Thor David Hesla
by the Rev. Woody Bartlett
My friends, both those of you whom I know and those of you whom I have yet to meet: It is a terrible thing to meet at a funeral, for our acquaintance is stained with a deep sadness. For those of you whom I have not met, my name is Woody Bartlett. I was the rector of this church when Thor was growing up and was close to him and his family. In fact, I officiated at the wedding of Marin and Bernard and am so honored to be asked by the family to make these remarks at this time.
If anything, Thor Hesla was larger than life. So even as we gather to mark his death, we must celebrate his life, his large-sized life. Let me tell you a few stories gathered from his family and friends. First, he was a great uncle. His sister and brother-in-law, Marin and Bernard, have two children: Olivia, aged 12, and David, aged 10. When Olivia was a tyke, Thor decided she needed a stuffed animal. So he went to F.A.O. Schwartz and came out with a 6 foot, 6 inch stuffed dog for Olivia. Marin and Bernard wedged it into their tiny house. A year later, inspired by a panda at the grandparents' house, David got a 5 foot tall panda, of lesser size only because he couldn't find a bigger one. That too was wedged in. By now their living arrangement was being threatened by Thor's larger than life generosity. Then two years later the whole population of the 100 Acre Woods, in stuffed animals, came to live with Marin, Bernard and children - Pooh Bear, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, Christopher Robin - the whole lot. By that time they had been forced to move to a bigger house so an immediate crisis was averted.
There was more. Railroad caps followed by the whole works of Lionel trains, Uncle ball where Thor would throw several balls into the back yard and create an enormous amount of running around and much squealing of delight, Thor changing the rules regularly to assure that he would win. He loved children. And they loved him.
Thor didn't just play with children. At one point in his career, he ran a lot of political campaigns. In his contribution to the amazing blog, Matt Drury tells the story about the time Thor managed the Wu for Congress campaign in Portland, OR. As a green young staffer, confused about his role as the campaign reached its chaotic climax, Matt asked Thor what he should be doing. Thor stopped, faced Matt and launched into an eloquent lecture about the German army in WWI. The army did a study on what was the most important feature for a warplane in a dogfight. The results didn't point to speed or firepower, but to maneuverability. "Young Matt," Thor said, "I need you to be our dogfighter - be flexible, just do what needs to be done." And then he spread his arms out like a plane and ran around the office making airplane noises. Matt relates that at the time he thought Thor was crazy. But guess what story Matt tells to new staffers as he now manages campaigns? As someone said the other night, Thor did performance art before it was invented.
Thor's father, David, tells another Thor story. It seems that when Thor came home to Atlanta from time to time, they would invariably take a trip to north Georgia, ending up at the Smith House in Dahlonega, where the fare is all-you-can-eat, Southern style. David said that he knows that the Smith House always lost money when they visited. After all, there is no sign that Thor was ever a member of Weight Watchers. But what got David the most was that they would be driving along and would stop at a scenic overlook. They would get out, admire the view and then Thor would shout, "Truth. Beauty. Justice." Then they would drive on to another overlook, get out and Thor would shout, "Honor. Freedom."
Larger than life.
Thor was an organizer. He organized pieces of Olympic events, large conferences, political campaigns, including advance work for the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign and director of operations in Iowa for the Bradley for President campaign. To emphasize that work, let me tell you what happened when I was at the house two nights ago to talk about this service. The phone rang. On the phone was Bill Clinton saying, "Thor did a lot of great things for me. He was wonderful. Give the family my sincerest sympathies."
Larger than life.
Over the last number of years, Thor turned his talents to work overseas, helping with political campaigns, teaching new governments how to govern in order to help their people, being a wise ambassador for all that is decent and honest and good. That work took him to Kosovo for three years and most recently to Kabul, Afghanistan. There he was met head-on by the violence he sought to dissipate. And there our laughter that always accompanied his laughter turns to pain. How could this be? Upon hearing the news, more than one of us sat in stunned silence, trying to comprehend. How could such a large life become no life so quickly? There was no chance to say goodbye. All we have is a flood of memories and some 25,000 hits on a three-day-old website. And tears. Oh, yes, there are tears.
We think about the scene at the hotel, try to imagine the anger that generated it. We think of summoning a corresponding anger in return, but that seems so futile. And so un-Thor like.
Oh, we all know that each of us will face death some day, maybe sooner and more violently than we imagine. Or maybe as the old Irish folksong suggests, we will have 'death on pillow.' But we will visit death, that mysterious realm that none of us can penetrate except in anticipation. One question crosses my mind, however. Assuming that we can put that realm into visible and personal forms, we think, "Now God has Thor on his or her hands. Can heaven stand the whirlwind that is Thor? Will he now be playing Uncle-ball with the cherubim? Will the ranks upon ranks of heavenly hosts finally get organized? Is heaven ready for performance art? Oh me.
Thor was in Kabul for a mixed bag of reasons, not the least of which was to try to catch a break for the ordinary people who always end up getting the brunt of war. He was there to help that new government be responsive to its people, make its institutions work for the people. He was there to help. And he surely knew that he was in a hot spot that could turn south at any time. Despite all of the precautions that he and his company took, it did turn south.
We just now read the story of the Good Shepherd for the gospel. Now none of us would ever confuse Thor with Jesus. God forbid. And Thor would never take himself too seriously. He would never want us to romanticize him or what he was doing. Still there are parallels between the gospel and Thor in Kabul. Listen to an excerpt.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away - and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. . .The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Now God has Thor. We know that God is stronger than anything that can happen to us, stronger even than death. So we trust God to take care of Thor.
Thor led an amazing life, a 'larger than life' life. He touched so many people with his wit, his energy, his passion, his ability. Just read some of the comments on his web page from people from all over the world.
The other night, Marin mentioned Mary Oliver's poem, When Death Comes. Let me read you a piece of it.
When life's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
Or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
Don't worry, Thor. You were so much more than a visitor to this world. You grabbed it and wrestled with it. You teased it and laughed with and at it. Life's ironies were not lost on you. You rolled in the grass and hugged it as a bridegroom does his bride. Don't worry, Thor. You lived a life that defined life, oh you with the 'larger-than-life' life. Thank you, friend.