Memorial created 01-15-2008 by
Thor David Hesla
April 1 1962 - January 14 2008
Here we've gathered some of the longer reminiscences provided by friends.
I was called last night by Glenn Kurtz, a mutual friend. I was so completely floored, so disproportionately shaken, that I have spent the past 16 hours doing little more than trying to figure out why. It came to me at some point that everything in my life, for the past fifteen years, has been just a few degrees from Thor. He was one of my sister’s good friends in college, the best friend of one of her closest friends, Andy Ordover. She introduced me to Thor, who introduced me to Michael, who brought me to work in Fleet at the Inauguration in 1993. I got a date to one of the balls a few weeks into it, and Thor famously bellowed at me about the fact that I would dare leave PIC at 11:30 at night – to go to something as frivolous as a “little dance.” I had thought I worked for Michael, I thought I was clear to go. Turns out I reported to Thor. It was 11:30 and my date was somewhere waiting. I was dressed. Thor lept on a table, and enjoying his bold, pink, rage, yelled out to the scurrying interns “Excuse me…Can I have your attention? I want you to meet Cat. She is relatively new. So new, in fact, that you don’t know her yet. Yet that does not deter her. Cat, here, is pretty sure that her little dance is more important than anything going on here. Her entertainment trumps the Inauguration of the President. So Cat, here, wants to make sure we ALL know that She should go to her little dance. And I want to make sure that you are all OK with her going to her prom while you all continue to work well into the night. Just making sure. That no one minds. Since she is surely deserving of this break. More than us.” It was longer, louder, and somehow more eloquent than that. I was mortified. I cried. I am horrified to admit that now, but I did. I cried. And Michael leaned back, feet on his desk and said something like “oh, Thor, give her a fucking break.” I went to the ball, and worked harder on the days that followed, desperate to prove I was not a frippet. I went on to Buffalo, to work on the World University Games. He was a fixture, along with the other fixtures. I was female, and it was a solid Boy’s Club, but I enjoyed the fringes – and defended him to women who couldn’t bear his misogyny-as-sport. He would tell people he made me cry. That I worked for Hunter Thompson, but THOR made me cry. It was a bit of a badge of honor. He joked about being Lou Grant to my Mary Tyler Moore, and he would sing me the theme song when ever I entered Left Bank. In Atlanta, he was always with Liz – another who could find charm in his minor abuses. She cried, too, at some point. Thor drove you to that. It was just what he did. But he also had your back. He had a harsh sense of humor, and used it to weed out those who didn’t get the joke. In Atlanta, I lived with Robin, who had been married to Andy. (Are you following? Two degrees from Thor.) Robin was too serious for Thor. She found him too unguarded, too juvenile. But Robin would. She is an attorney, and Thor could have used executive counsel – or at least a good editor. When I would walk to Atkins Park, Thor would sing me the Mary Tyler Moore theme song, comfortably and predictably. I think it was a Buddy Dardin reunion of sorts, some Georgia Democrats function, where Thor met Gavin. They had all sorts of things in common, Dads overlapped at Emory, Gavin’s mom a long fixture in Atlanta politics, a shared love of rugby, and backgrounds that included logistics. Gavin indicated that he wanted to teach in the fall, and wanted to get out of container logistics (he was working for APL at the time) and into something Else. Thor said he had positions at the Paralympics, and he was tight with most of the Transportation and Logistics departments at ACOG. He wanted to hire Gavin but had to admit I had a better position. He faxed me Gavin’s resume. I hired him. Then dated him. I married him. Thor was at the wedding. Gavin credited him in his toast. My children, three of them, are therefore… only a couple steps removed from Thor, as well. There is this thing that comes with age – a desire to make contact with the familiar. To find the people that were the touchstones, to reconnect. I have moved several times in the last 15 years and finding people has never been as easy as it was from 1992-1997 – the five years I can point to where I felt I truly belonged. Thor was in the middle of that. Once you knew him, you just… did. I moved back to Atlanta a few months ago and imagined that I would have drinks with him again, between his adventures and exploits. That we would meet at Atkins Park, Manuel’s, or Mel’s. That he would be back for his Dad, for Maren and Bernard. For the kids. That I would horn in on the hard-earned family time and get an hour or two of my own. We would reminisce somewhere beer-soaked, and he would fill me in on details. He would embellish, or not. He would say something off-color, and since suggestive comments are rarer for me now at 40 than they were at 25, I would be charmed, rather than put off. He would make me feel a little bit famous, just for knowing him. I haven’t seen him in ten years, and only recently realized that. I was not part of his biggest stories, I wasn’t there for anything grand – but I knew somehow I was still in the middle of it. That, without a doubt, if Thor came to town, he would join me at the bar. He would sing a little Mary Tyler Moore and he would make me laugh louder than I would have thought possible. He would make me miss a life I have no interest in living, and for a minute I would feel home. He won’t be back, and that doesn’t seem possible. I so badly want this to be another of his stories. I want this to be someone’s mistake. A grave error of a bureaucrat. It would be too perfect a punchline. He needed to be in the middle of things, things larger than him. But this was a “middle” he shouldn’t have been in. Come on home, Thor. I’ll even buy the first round.
"I'm calling with some nasty news," Andy said softly. "Thor Hesla was killed this morning in Kabul." Our friend from college became the unidentified American in the newswire stories. Thor had the perfect name. He had bright yellow hair and a Vikingesque build that he flung with great vigor around the rugby field. At Emory, my closest friendships lay at the nexus of the theater and rugby crowd--a concentric group of friends. We helped each other survive the Reagan years at a frat-bound Southern school and stayed in touch in varying degrees through the years. One sunny day, I was lying on the grass on the quad, reading. Anna Karenina. I'd decided to try to read those classics that had somehow passed me by. Half way through my book, Thor's shadow fell over me. "What you reading?" he asked. I showed him the book cover. He smirked and said, "She kills herself in the end." That was Thor, for you. Andrew Ordover, the friend from college I stay in closest touch with, was the common link that kept Thor and I seeing each other through the years. The last time I saw Thor was at Andy's 40th birthday party at Marie's Crisis in the West Village. Thor bought me some beers and we talked at the bar, surprised that in different ways, we'd been living somewhat similar lives. Thor had gone on to work for democratic candidates as an advance man and then became a political consultant. He kept drinking beer, grew bigger, but developed a highly attuned sense of the world. He worked on development in Kosovo. He fell in love; we thought for a time that he might even marry. Recently, he'd been working in Kabul. And today went to the Serena hotel, a safe haven. A friend who teaches law in CA had just visited Kabul last week to speak to a group of judges; amidst the greatest poverty she'd ever seen, she said, the Serena was the most luxurious and seemingly impenetrable place she'd ever stayed. I instinctively rang her tonight, needing to hear she was safe in CA again, nursing her flu. My old friend Thor was the unidentified American who was shot randomly as Taliban militants ran through the hotel with their guns. Thor grew up to be a good man. Still loud, still big, still crude. But with a strong moral compass, a sense that what was wrong needed to be fixed, and a notion that the world was indeed a small place -- a small place we were all responsible for mending. I know many die each day tragically, especially in cities like Kabul. This I know. But tonight, I put my head in my hands and weep for an unidentified American. Who was a good good guy.
Liz Burke called me a little before 1 o'clock today and told me the news. I've been pretty numb about it for several hours, but now here I sit to write down some of my Thor Stories, beer and cigarette in hand, because that's what Thor would want. Well, Thor would actually want a beer and a shot, and though he might on occasion say that smoking was bad for me, you know he really thought it was sexy in a "bad girl" kind of way. One of the first things I ever heard about Thor was at the '93 Inaugural offices. I was heading over to Transportation from Procurement (my haunts) and ran into someone, probably Kymie Spring or Mike McMahon, who said, "Uh, you don't want to go back there right now. Thor's head is about to explode." While his skull managed to keep it's structural integrity, this had become the code word for any time when Thor was about to do his nut over some transgression. I actually got to see the ramp up to this pheonomenon (narrowly escaped) a couple of weeks later -- over, of all things, a coffee urn. Somehow some other department had wrangled a coffee urn from Transportation's stock -- I either didn't know much about it or hadn't seen it as a significant event, when suddenly I was the recipient of the wrath of Thor. That is not joke, and I completely understand Cat's being brought to tears by the man (see link to Catherine's reminiscence). Somehow I got Thor back down to a mild boil,and life went on. Why was Thor being such a nutter about a coffee maker? Because the Inaguration is in January, and '93 was a really freaking cold one, and having hot coffee was a small but important thing for all of the volunteers who were working in the bus loading zones and parking lots during the events. Steal his own coffee, fine, and he'll get you back somehow probably both fun and humiliating. Damage his operation or his people, and incur all of the lightning and thunder. I took a hiatus from events after WUG in Buffalo, so I didn't see Thor et al for a couple of years. Yet on the day when I pulled in to Atlanta with my U-haul, Thor was amongst the small gang of folks who showed up to help unload the gear. I had had a bad day with the moving truck from hell, so I was wisked back to his place while Kymie made dinner for a small gang. At any rate, I was exhausted, and new in town, and back with "family". The memorable Thor quote I remember from that evening, when some folks broke out some "special smokie treats" was -- "Open the door, fan out the smoke, Laurel has to take her pee test tomorrow!!" (mandatory drug screening for ACOG). Just the perfect host. Of course, in Atlanta was "the bar" -- Atkins Park. It was here that I heard from Michael Pitts that Ron Brown's plane had crashed with no survivors. It was Thor who knew that I would care that Gail Dobert had also been on board. On a more jovial night at Atkins Park (oh soo many nights, soo much drinking), when I was particularly liquored up and needed to call it a night, Thor offered to walk me the 6 blocks to my apartment. About halfway there was a little brick walled alleyway thing, upon reaching which Thor announces that he thought we could walk back there and fool around. I pretty much said no, I don't think so (no I did not tell him to F-off). Thor said, "well f--- this, I'm going back to the bar!" and walked back to AP. Later yet, when I was in Grad School in DC, I had a BBQ Party, partly because my sister was in town. My sister had a riotous good time talking to both Thor and Michael Pitts. After the party I must have been recounting some story like the above, when my sister gives me a bit of a shocked look and said, "I thought that Thor and Michael were, well, together." More than any one Thor moment, though, was just the adventure of knowing Thor. Thor inspired in me delight, loyalty, anger, hilarity, humility, embarrassment, pique, sincerity, effort, relief, comfort and more. He was friend, drinking buddy, advisor, listening ear, and a welcomely familiar face. Sure, we can all talk about the intense nature of the circumstances in which most of us know Thor -- you work in campaigns or major events or war zones with someone, you get close. And if you're really lucky, you go through this intensity with a few people with whom it's kind of closeness that's not just fadeaway. There is a reason why we call ourselves the Pitts Nation, Event Junkies, or an Event Family. The reason is that we are fortunate enough to encounter someone like Thor. Luckier still, we got to encounter the man himself. He was a master networker, who recognized people's potentials and pushed them to achieve. He was no angel, and we all know better than to pretend that he was. Thor was a singular, incredible, adventurous full-on liver of life. Thor was, and shall remain, part of my Family. I look forward to joining the rest of our Family in Washington when Thor comes home. Shanti. Hari Om tat sat.
Thor was a teenager (or maybe a pre-teen?) when I was born and he, sister Maren and father David, Sr. have been part of the fabric of my life since the day I was born. I’m part of their extended family; the ones from St. Bartholomew’s. My family moved to Florida twenty years ago, so my real memories of Thor don’t begin until I was an adult. In fact, I only have two real interactions with Thor; the rest are all stories from his sister and from his infamous ‘Big Letters’. The first ‘real’ interaction I had with Thor was a few years ago when I moved to Washington D.C. to ‘find myself’. Maren was my main contact there and since Thor was on one of his adventures far away, Maren worked it out with Thor so I could stay in his efficiency in the heart of D.C. until I found a place. I was thrilled to have a free place to hole-up for a few weeks and have since been indebted to Thor (and Maren) for the generosity. My second interaction with Thor was about a year later when the St. Bart’s family threw me and my then fiancé, Mark, an engagement party in Atlanta. Both my parents were there along with about twenty or so family-friends, Thor among them. Things got a little rowdy toward the end of the party (as they often do in our group) and Thor began to grill Mark with a series of questions that were irreverent (go figure), clever, obscure and to everyone except me and Mark, hilarious. (A few months later they became hilarious to me and Mark too, but at the time Mark was a little “deer in the headlights” and I was slightly mortified). I can’t remember the exact questions now, but they ranged from, “who was the MVP of Superbowl twelve?” to “if you, Molly and Virginia (my mom) were in a boat that was sinking and you had to throw either Molly or Virginia overboard to save the boat… who would you pick?” You can sense my mortification, yes? Even though I was mortified I was still touched by Thor’s antics that night because the fact that he made such a big deal over my fiancé meant he cared a great deal about me. And, as everyone reading this will probably understand, it was an honor to have Thor embarrass you in a way that’s just hard to explain. Even though my interactions with Thor have been brief, I’ve always felt an affinity for him, for his joie-de-vivre, and for his ability to make anything irreverent but somehow appropriate. His death seems surreal to me because I always imagined Thor to be one of those guys who would be adventuring until his body just gave out from old-age and that somehow his name would immortalize him. After all, the God of Thunder doesn’t die… he just moves on to the next adventure. It gives me peace of mind to know that moving on to the next great adventure is exactly what Thor has done and I’m keeping my eyes out for the next Big Letter, “The Heaven Edition”.
The friend who told me last night said it had hit him hard. It's taken a while to sink in, but Thor's death has really knocked me back, too. I wrote something out earlier today and sent it to a couple of friends whose e-mail I had at hand. That seemed to help a bit. I felt a great need to tell, to let others know. It seemed important for people to think about Thor now. And I needed to think upon him, to set aside some time and let memories bubble to the surface. Later in the day as I sat down to collect more e-mails and send out the note more broadly, I discovered it had disappeared into the ether and was probably never received. Somehow that intensified the sense of loss and it has settled as a hard knot in my stomach. What has been spinning through my head are memories of Thor and lines from a poem by W.B. Yeats, "All Soul's Night," a poem I read every Halloween (or All Hallow's Eve.) All Soul's Night is the night before All Saints Day and is for remembering those who didn't quite make it to sainthood. I don't think Thor, rogue that he could be, would be offended as I don't think he ever aspired to be a saint. In the poem, it is midnight and a man sits in front of two glasses of wine and remembers friends who have died. The opening lines are: Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
And may a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls' Night,
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost's right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine. So, in his honor, last night I poured out a beer into a glass (seemed more appropriate than a glass of wine), set it out (OK, I drank a bit, too), wondered if Thor was somehow sharing it with me, and remembered...
- Thor dancing. An unforgettable, joyous graduation jig that Thor did with his father on the Emory stage just after he had handed him his diploma. He helped us all mark that event.
- Thor wearing a skirt to Emory rugby matches. The funny thing is his wearing his sister's skirt wasn't so remarkable. It was just Thor. I remember it because I remember other people commenting on it.
- Thor's strong value on friendships. Not only did he value it, but he made a point of telling you how much he appreciated your friendship with him.
- Thor nearly killing himself mountain climbing in North Georgia. I happened to be in Atlanta soon afterward and was regaled with the story and saw the scars. He was a good story teller.
- Thor's misogynist tendencies. Don't know how, but he somehow managed to piss off a lot of women I have known.
- Thor doing things his own way. I remember he wanted to write a book on nuclear proliferation or something near. His approach, however, was not to go and research what everyone else had done. He wanted his thoughts to be fresh and untainted by others' ideas to see what he could figure out on his own.
- Thor smiling. It seems in all my mental images, he is smiling. He was a happy soul.
I write this with shaking hands. Although I found out Monday evening I am still crying, laughing and missing my friend so terribly my whole body hurts. But Thor’s life was never about crying unless you were laughing so hard your eyes overflowed! I met Thor during my very first event in 1993, the World University Games. As usual, he came, not to work, but to get all the swag he could, drive Michael Pitts around and generally make himself the life of every party. I never met anyone like him and as one loud mouth who found another, I immediately claimed him for my own. In 1996 we both took jobs with the Atlanta Paralympic Committee. All our friends worked down the street at the Olympic Committee but Thor and I decided we would go with the lesser known event and make a bigger impact. That was Thor, always wanting to do the most he could with everything he did. I don’t think those hiring us knew what they were getting! Within minutes of his arrival in the office, everyone knew the name Thor Hesla! He made meetings fun and we all know how much Thor loved meetings! We worked so closely at times, I felt we were glued together for 18 months and no one had any glue remover. I loved every minute of it and even when I was my most angry at him, I could never stay that way. He would do something that would have me laughing so much and so hard, I would forget what he did and just like that, I wasn’t mad any more. I loved that about him. He was the most generous, kind and loving man, wherever he went, he made friends and kept them. Being his friend meant you were in his life forever and you felt like you were part of a very special group of people. There are so many memories, parties, drives, hanging out in his bachelor pad, (including his dark yucky basement apt on the Hill) eating(!) and drinking with him. I remember swimming in one of the super swanky Atlanta hotel roof pools pretending we were Super Swells, eating and cocktailing poolside like we owned the place. He was always up for anything and it was always an adventure you were glad you were on. Because of him, I met so many people that are important in my life. He had a tremendous gift of bringing in all different types of people together that would never have met otherwise. My great friend Jocelyn Augustino is a perfect example. He introduced us while at the bar at Tunnicliffs and for that I will always be grateful. I had been hounding him about his unfinished script for years and to know he finally finished it made me really proud of him. Now it just needs to be produced! Let’s get his movie made people!!!! My last contact with him was 4 days before he was murdered. He reminded me of my problem with my red wine drinking and how I should stop wearing white shirts when drinking red wine! How dare he! Hahahahahah!!! So here is my last email to him on New Year’s Eve (typical cryptic Thor): Me: who are you working for and how long is your contract? Wear sunscreen on your head. Thor: stuff. so secret I can't tell you. Me: Happy New Year Jason Bourne! The world is not as funny, exciting or interesting today, but because I had 15 years with him, I feel incredibly lucky to be included in his life. I could go on, as I write, memories are popping like corn in my head, but unlike Thor, I am not as clever or witty a writer. So I say goodbye Thor and if you are in Valhalla, Godspeed and make sure you are in the front of the big boat!
Dear Thor, It was October 2005 when I heard your name for the first time. I had just arrived in Kosovo. Fresh off the boat, I didn't have a clue where I was or what was going on. On my very first day at the UN Mission, I walked from desk to desk nervously introducing myself. To my great surprise, people kept saying that they were looking forward to my party that weekend. "My Party? What party?" "Oh yeah... Thor has organised a welcome party for you and Daragh - the two new Irishmen joining the team." "Who's Thor?" We had never even met. So typical. You should know that you brought people together in a way that I have never seen before. Some of my happiest memories revolve around playing ultimate frisbee with you and the gang. These were special times that will stay with me forever. Twice a week for four hours all my problems disappeared. Frisbee was your show - but you always ran it with grace in such a supportive and inclusive way. I hope you know that it was an inspiration to me. To us all. You made me laugh. A special memory was our gym routine, reliable as a Swiss clock. At the appointed time on the appointed day, you and I would rush to reserve the two cross-trainers to the very left of the UNMIK gym. It was no coincidence that this strategic positioning facilitated optimal viewing of the ladies' yoga class. Thick as thieves mate. I can't tell you how upset myself and Arbed are that you have been taken from us. You were so kind to her and she speaks of you often. I know your Kosovo friends are devastated. I would like to convey my sincerest condolences to your family - I can only try to imagine what they are going through. You know, I can't begin to make sense of this. I hope that I never will. We all miss you so much. Although gone, you will never be forgotten. Your pal, Ronan
From the Memorial Service held in Pristina, Kosovo on January 18, 2008 BIG You were big and round. Like a planet. And wherever you were, we all just wanted to float for a while in your orbit. Encircling you like a hundred moons. There, where you were, always felt like the best place to be. And yet somehow in your safe, secure orbit, you made each of us feel as if WE were the center of the universe. That each of us was gifted or charming or clever or beautiful or special in some way. You were big and round. So very round. Just the perfect shape for us to wrap our arms around you. But it took the arms of two people to traverse the circumference of your big belly. As if you had been built so that twice as many people could share you. Or perhaps your big mind and your bigger heart would just not have fit into an average man's body. You were big and often wet. Playing Ultimate or enjoying a beer in the summer sun, you would glisten conspicuously with perspiration. It would leave you sticky. Like a gob of glue in which all of us got stuck. Stuck to you and to one another. I can't get your glue off me now. You were big and solid and everpresent. Like a glacier. I thought you would be around for a million years. I thought you would be always there. Your death devastates me. In your glacial space lies an empty valley melting with tears. You were big and built like a bull. But you stepped through life with the agility and grace and elegance of a ballet dancer. We were your partners. And you handled us delicately as if you knew how fragile we all were. You threw us into the air and taught us to soar. And you caught us as we came down. You were big and majestic like a lion. But you never roared. You were rarely loud. Only to focus the group or the team would you ever raise your voice. But usually you spoke softly. And though you possessed an awesome gift of speech and though you had much to say, when others spoke you always listened. You were usually the oldest among us. But the biggest child of us all. Free and uninhibited, you loved to play. You'd throw up your hands and stick out your tongue and babble like a baby whenever you made your Secret Sign. And we babbled with you because your play was contagious. Because of you, I lived another childhood. Your death for me feels like I have lost my youth. You were a big thinker and a formidable intellect. You could have built empires and fortunes with those talents. But you chose instead to do what you believed in. To help transform communities, one place at a time. Guiding and inspiring others to do so, one person at a time. You envisioned big things and then, moments later, saw all the little details required to make those visions happen. You made the logistics look easy. You'd initiate, delegate and motivate until the game, the weekend, the ski trip, the music festival and the party all happened. And at each stage of the planning you would inject us with a sense of purpose and adventure. Even when we were scattered around the globe. Geography was no obstacle for you. You were bigger than the earth. You were big and sheltering. Like a house. Everyone was welcome under your roof. You never left a soul out in the cold. And you felt most at home when your house was packed with guests and echoed with laughter. You were an artist, fed by a big, boundless imagination. You found inspiration everywhere. Just before you left for Afghanistan you completed writing a screenplay and a novel. You hushed and delighted us with your poems. You composed lyrics, distributed copies, and led us in song. You outlined in detail ideas for movies and TV shows. Your ideas often combined the absurd and the satirical with the hysterical. The one I remember best is Abu Ghraib - The Musical. Somehow, though, the way you lived your life was your greatest work of art. You were big and all-knowing. It was as if you knew you would be leaving us very soon. You lived and worked and played as if there was just no time to waste or muck about. Get things done. Let the good times roll. Seize the day. For this day shall pass. You were big and round. Like a brilliant sun. You burned warm and bright. Around you, people glowed, possibilities sprouted, and life flourished. This, dear Thor, is how I remember your big, beautiful life. your friend Sherwin Read at the memorial service by Sven Lindholm
Thor Hezla died in a terrorist attack in a well guarded hotel in Afganistan. A terrible and pointless waste of a wonderful life. What can we say to give this any meaning? I am lost for the right words – anything I say will be inadequate and fall short of the honour we owe to the man, our friend, our colleague. Thor was a real friend to me and Lu as he was to many many other people. I worked closely with him for nearly 4 year at the KTA... he was the best man at our wedding in Kiev and played his part with customary gusto... We played ultimate together, skied together and watched Rugby together... He was the Thorganiser of most of our social lives – he was fun, the life and soul of the party... and I never heard him say a bad word about anybody – apart from Fucci and Lambsdorf... and even then – only because they were trying to fire him (and me) at the time... We survived that scrape – and went on to see both of them off the premises. It was fun – we worked hard – we fought for what was right – and we ultimately won the battle. He gladly passed on his knowledge to his colleagues... And we all missed him when he left us – He was a true professional at work and 31 bid days later – not to mention press points – speeches – presentations - countless advertisements – brochures – how too manuals... we still benefit from the phenomenal detail and skill that he brought to everything he worked on... Privatization worked – and we changed the world for the better because of it... Now 500 new companies privatized later with nearly 400 million in sales – we can clearly say – we helped revitalize the economy of Kosovo and create better stability in the region. We changed the world and Thor was a big part of that. He was generous in the extreme - I often saw him take up the slack in a big bar bill – or cover for those less well paid than himself – he did it selflessly, and without any big ceremony – he didn’t want to be acknowledged for his generosity – he just did it – because it made him feel good – and it helped others out. He never sweated on the small stuff. He was the keenest of sportsmen – I don’t remember him ever missing an ultimate game when he was around – he always went out of his way to welcome new players – to teach newbies – and to make sure everyone was welcome – often spending hours teaching people throws – or the rules – or how to drink vodka shots at the ultimate parties. He lived life to the Max and his enthusiasm was infectious. In many ways I wanted to be like him – to have that generosity of spirit – to always look for the good in others – to be so popular with everyone whom he touched. He was larger than life and we will miss him dearly. We were lucky to be a part of his big friendship network. He was irrepressible in his optimism – and very difficult to refuse when he started organizing some social event or parties. Today is a day of great sadness – I hear his voice and the many funny things he said. I hope to never forget him and the great fun he was. I hear his wise counsel when we were in a scrape. Today the world is a much poorer place for his passing... There is nothing I can say to assuage this great sadness. We loved him and he loved us. I am just proud I could call him friend. More... I was going to ask Matthew to read out the tribute that I wrote immediately on hearing of Thor’s tragic death, however, it seems that most people have read that – those that haven’t, please visit the remembrance web site. This web site illustrates just how incredible Thor’s outreach of friends is... at the time of writing after just 2 days more than 18,500 people have logged onto this site – there are hundreds and hundreds of messages, amusing anecdotes and photos... He will be remembered by thousands, he touched so many people in so many ways. He was so much larger than life, so much larger than small time gossip, so much larger than a man, of his height should have been. Who could imagine that this friendly bear of a man could died in a terrorist attack in a well guarded hotel in Afghanistan? A terrible and pointless waste of a wonderful life. Here are some memories of Thor that are a little more irreverent but I think illustrate the fun and anarchistic side of him: Thor having a “Life’s a riot party” on March 17 2004 in his apartment on Mother Teresa street. When escorting a female guest home, he managed to get himself into a very large rioting crowd of protestors outside his apartment – but extricated himself by shouting – “Don’t Shoot, I’m an American” at the top of his voice. Thor and I being called up to USAID to explain how we could have possibly advertised the Brezovica Ski resort and Trepca Mines in the Economist when Privatization was, at the time, cancelled! An act it seems which had sorely vexed the head of Pillar IV. Thankfully, Thor, the most organized of campaigners had kept all the correspondence that showed we had indeed followed the proper procedures... and Pillar IV had authorized the advert. We escaped an early return home on that occasion. Thor in his “give Blood – play rugby” T shirt... an immovable object on the sports field - anyone who had inadvertently run into him on the Ultimate pitch could testify to the immense stature of the man. I gave blood myself on a couple of occasions. Thor’s song – We will we will sell you... set to Queen's We will rock you, written during the battle to restart privatisation: Brother your and SOE
Losing all your equity
Rotting to the Ground in Kosovo
Paul says slow, Fucci says No
Johny Johnson says go go go... singing
We will, we will sell you! There are so very many other funny stories – too many to mention. But there was more to Thor than the irreverent funny man... We played ultimate together, skied together and watched Rugby together... He was the Thorganiser of most of our social lives – he was fun, the life and soul of the party... and I rarely heard him say a bad word about anybody – though he could be blunt in the extreme. He was the PR machine and event organiser that got us safely though innumerable bid days... events which, being live – had to work perfectly every time. He was a core part of the team that ran the most successful privatization program so far conducted in any post conflict environment. He was generous in the extreme - I often saw him pay the restaurant bill for someone less well off than himself.. He never sweated on the small stuff. He was the keenest of Ultimate Frizbee sportsman – he always went out of his way to welcome new players – to teach new players – and to make sure everyone was welcome – often spending hours teaching people throws – or the rules – or how to drink vodka shots at the ultimate parties. He lived life hard and his enthusiasm was infectious. In many ways I wanted to be like him – to have that generosity of spirit – to always look for the good in others – to strike up friendships with everyone whom he met. He was indeed - larger and life and we will miss him dearly. But all in all - today is a day of remembrance on which I feel sure Thor would have wanted us to remember the fun side of him – I hear his voice and the many funny things he said. I hope to never forget him and the great fun he was. Today the world is a much poorer place for the sadness of his passing... There is nothing I can say to assuage this great sadness. We loved him and he loved us. I am just proud I could call him friend.
It’s taken me nearly a week for the news to penetrate my brain and to collect my thoughts enough to write something in memory of my dear friend, Thor. Actually, I called him Thorby, and he called me Care Bear. Thor was one of the first people I met when I moved to DC in 1994. We met at the National Leadership Coalition for Health Care Reform. Thor was a field coordinator and I learned a ton by watching him in action. He was beyond smart, and that intellect was more than a little intimidating at times. It seemed to me that he knew every member of Congress, their party, their district, their voting record, their staff, and usually a juicy bit of gossip. You couldn’t know Thor without knowing of his sister Maren. In fact, he spoke so often and so proudly of Maren that the NLC field staff actually banned him from mentioning her name for a while. Of course, that never stopped Thor from bringing her up – and no one really wanted him to, it was just their way of busting his chops. It would be years until I finally met Maren and Bernard and Thor’s adored niece and nephew but in all those years rarely a conversation went by without hearing the latest about his beloved sister and her family. Thor was the originator of the “Rolodex Roundup.” Before the days of smart phones, electronic organizers, and Outlook, Thor was the King of the Rolodex. On Thursday nights, he and Rich Pinto would get everyone in the office to call everyone in their Rolodexes to invite them to happy hour. The crowds that would show up were huge and interesting, and always hilarious. Being new to the area, I didn’t have a Rolodex of contacts, so I was pretty awed by their networks. Little did I know that this was Classic Thor and would be a hallmark of his life. Shortly after I arrived in DC, Thor asked if I wanted to volunteer for the World Cup, which was coming to DC. He was working with the transportation division and roped me in to being a driver. Now mind you, I had JUST moved to DC, didn’t have a car, and didn’t know my way around the District at all. But Thor figured no big deal – I’d learn and the people coming to DC didn’t know the area either so no one would be the wiser if I got lost. This was my introduction to Thor’s network of sporting event gypsies and I was hooked – on the excitement and the camaraderie. In 1996, I signed up to work for the Washington Olympic Village and it was all because of Thor. Although we only worked in DC together for a short time – less than a year – that time was packed with memories. He was a formidable teammate on our softball team – the Health’s Angels. While our team had several jocks (who shall remain nameless to protect the not so innocent), there was Thor in his goofy t-shirts and baggy shorts and big, GLOWING white socks. We often went out drinking and dancing… on one particular night, Thor was dancing wildly and sweating profusely. His shirt was drenched and he was loving every second of me and Stacey D’Aquila dancing around him making him feel like the rock star that he was. Stacey and I later decided that the only way to describe Thor’s dancing style was to liken him to a large black bear reared on its hind legs with its paws high overhead, flailing around uncontrollably. On another night, he scored tickets to a Crosby, Stills & Nash concert and somehow got us backstage passes for the VIP reception. Next thing you know, I’m meeting the band. That was Thor. Don’t ask questions – just go along for the ride, because it’s sure to be a memorable one. I remember visiting him in Atlanta before the Paralympics and meeting his posse, crashing at his apartment, going out for good food at his favorite haunts, great conversation and laughter. Always laughter. I moved to NYC in 1997 and my interactions with Thor became more sporadic, but with Thor, you could pick up right where you left off no matter how much time had passed. From 97 - 04, we spent time together in NYC, DC, and LA and that seemed perfectly normal. Thor had a serious side, which he shared with me during long conversations about our families – particularly about our fathers. When my father was diagnosed with a long term illness, Thor was incredibly supportive and opened up about his concerns for his dad’s health and well being. In 2002, as my job was coming to an end, the strangest thing happened – but I guess being in Thor’s world, it wasn’t that strange at all. My company was downsizing and looking to sublet some of its space; a handful of us were still on staff but our days were numbered. I’m at my desk and I hear Thor’s voice down the hall. He’s advancing office space for the Golisano for Governor campaign. Of ALL the empty buildings in Manhattan, he ends up subletting space from the company I’m working for. He miraculously appears as I’m about to lose my job and gets the legendary Michael Pitts to hire me. I now meet and get to work with Liz Burke and Ron Coleman, and countless others in Thor’s orbit I’d only heard of. It was on the Golisano campaign that I got to work with Bernard for the first – and hopefully not the last – time. That campaign was the perfect transition for me and Thor knew it. Thor ALWAYS knew how to hook you up with whatever you were in need of. An amazing photographer? Call Jocelyn. A campaign? What kind do you want - Presidential? A state race? Call Maren. Are you willing to relocate? Do international work? Advance? Transportation? Logistics? Call Thor. The power of his Rolodex was not to be underestimated. He did it again this past May, when it was clear my time working for a local elected official was limited. Those are all the questions he asked and before I could blink, I was getting calls about opportunities around the country. Thor wasn’t stingy with his network. He was happy to put good people together to make good things happen. While in New York, we spent a memorable day tooling around Central Park and brainstorming new ideas for reality shows that we could sell and make millions from. We discussed the merits and weaknesses of all the shows out there and came up with a few winning ideas that we never did anything with but that amused us greatly. Shortly after leaving the Golisano campaign, I thought about moving back to DC. Thor was traveling and let me crash at his cute little Capitol Hill apartment. What a fiasco! He left the keys for me and a long list of instructions. I’m only staying 2 days so, really, how hard could this be? I arrive and hook up my laptop, everything’s working great, life is good. I shut down my computer to grab a bite to eat. A couple of hours later, I try to log on again and can’t connect to the Internet. No matter what I do, I cannot get anything to work. Completely mortified, I call Thor wherever he is. “:Thor….? I can’t get my computer to work with your Internet connection.” He’s silent and then says, “Is there a big pile of mail on the table?” Yes, there is, I answer. “Can you check and see if there’s a bill from the phone company there?” Sure enough, he hadn’t paid any of his bills for several months and they’d shut off his phone service in the few hours I’d been gone. Within an hour, he’s paid his bill and we’re cooking with gas again. Next day, I head out to my first appointment. I return home and find that his furniture has been rearranged. I’m sure I’m losing my mind. Again, I call him. “Thor….? Does anyone else have a key to your apartment?” Why? he asks and I explain. “Oh that – don’t worry. I asked my landlord to fix x.y.z and he probably just moved some things around in the process.” OK. Next day, I have more appointments. I leave and return to find that the key no longer works in the front door. I must be crazy. How can this be? The key worked this morning when I left… right? Again, I call Thor. “Thor…? I can’t get into your apartment. The key doesn’t seem to work anymore.” He quickly explains that his super must have fixed the locks. I needed to track down the super to get the new key. On my final day, I’m in the shower – one of those old footed tubs with a metal pipe holding the shower curtain up. As I reach for the towel to dry off, the metal pipe disengages from the ceiling and drops noisily to the floor. Without meaning to, I’d somehow broken his shower and couldn’t reattach it to the ceiling. At this point, I’m SURE his apartment is cursed, that Alan Funt has cameras rolling to capture this insanity on film, and I promise myself to spend the money on a hotel room during my next visit to DC, despite Thor’s generosity. The last time I saw Thor was in the Fall of 2004. Stacey D, Thor, and I met in DC for drinks and somehow ended up at a dinner party at Maren and Bernard’s house. That was Thor – you started out one place and never quite knew where the night would take you. But it would always be a good ride. What many people may not know is that Thor was absolutely convinced that we were going to get married some day. He asked me to marry him every time we got together or spoke by phone. You see I was part of an auspicious group of women he called “Robo Babes” – sometimes we were called “Turbo Babes.” I think there were 5 or 6 of us in this elite group. I’m pretty sure it was Jocelyn, Liz, me, and I could never remember the other two because we’d never met. He let me know that he wanted to marry all of us and then couldn’t understand why I didn’t take his romantic advances seriously. Whenever he asked about the guys I was dating, he would poo-poo them and give them a crazy nickname. The last was “Boat Boy” and Thor was quite pleased to learn that the romance had ended – but not in a mean way, of course. Just a “I’ve still got a chance” sort of way. I know that he met someone very special in Florida these past few years but he was private about the relationship, which told me it was serious. My heart goes out to this special woman. I’m so glad he finished his Great American Novel before he left and hope that through his network of friends we can get it published for him. And I’m loving that “Thorganizer” has been added to the Urban Dictionary – Steven you’re brilliant! It’s such a fitting tribute to Thor. It is unimaginable to me that Thor is gone. How can it be that this irrepressible, generous, larger than life man is gone??? It’s wrong, tragic, hateful, and heartbreaking on so many levels. I didn’t mean to write 3 pages but somehow I don’t want to let these memories slip away. I want people to know about my friend, Thor and the times we shared. It’s been a surreal week and I’m struck by how deeply I mourn his loss. This wasn’t someone I spoke with or saw often and yet knowing he was out there doing his thing, making a difference, anticipating that next Big Letter, or the next phone call out of the blue with a big bellowing “Care Bear” greeting was important to me. A bright light has gone out from my life and certainly from all of us who were lucky enough to know and love him. I am so thankful for the years of our friendship and for the joy, irony, humor, political insights, history lessons, bear hugs, purring (nobody could purr like Thor), and wet sloppy cheek kisses he shared with me. My heart breaks for Thor’s family. My deepest condolences to you. Thank you for sharing this incredible man with the world. Rest in peace, dear Thorby. I miss you already. Caryn Kaufman AKA “Care Bear”
News of Thor Hesla’s death in Afghanistan arrived, for me, in an unlikely setting. Yet, it arrived from an appropriate person, Thor’s friend and fellow alumnus of the Bill Bradley for President Campaign in Iowa, Robert Becker. I was saddled up at a bar called the Blackbird Buvette, across the street from my apartment in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which has been my home for almost four years. That the paths of Becker -- who was also presumably unemployed having been recently relieved of duties on the hustings of the 2008 Iowa Democratic presidential primary contest -- and mine would cross here, of all places, seemed strange, but not completely unexpected. Becker served as state director of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s campaign. I had recently opted not to re-up at the Democratic Party of New Mexico, where I worked for three plus years. Instead, I chose to volunteer in Iowa as a field grunt for the campaign of my home state’s U.S. Senator, Hillary Clinton. Characteristically to the point, Becker nodded a hello and said, “So, you heard, right?” “No. What?” I asked with a sense of foreboding. “Thor Hesla was killed this morning in a terrorist attack in Afghanistan.” The shock value of the news and the seemingly bizarre context, in which I learned it, left me silent and confused, asking an unexpected question: what does Thor Hesla mean to me? I had nothing to say at the time that seemed appropriate. I’m not sure I do now either. My first clear mental association was with Thor’s “Big Letter” – the latest installment of which, Becker produced from the breast pocket of his jacket. The “Big Letter,” in itself, was always a joy to receive and read. Its narrative was guaranteed to produce a hearty laugh. But, moreover, the letter was an extension of Thor’s embrace of his role as a dedicated and dynamic political organizer, and the consequence of a career that involved work in far flung locales, removed from friends and family. Yes, the application of mass communications techniques and organizing techniques to personal relationships is a bit of an occupational necessity for those of us in Thor’s world. If nothing else, that need to communicate with friends and family using a targeted message, as if they were voters in an electorate, was something with which I could identify. Thor did it better than I do, and the “Big Letter” was a credible and fairly reliable yearly publication – The Hesla Gazette, if you will – that allowed him to stay in contact and feel a part of people’s lives when getting together for a beer was physically impossible. The question of what Thor meant to me forced me to reflect on the eight years since the first time I met him. My answer is essentially this: Thor embodied the thing about the Bradley campaign and, more broadly, about the enduring relationships forged in the volatile professional sphere of politics that have helped sustain me over the last decade. And, it is in the belly of this realization that the death of Thor -- someone who I remembered fondly but never really knew intimately – hit, knocking the wind out of me. In politics, people come and go. Graduate School, Foreign Service, the corporate world, and family life pluck our former campaign colleagues from amongst us. These relationships are often strained by competing personal and professional pressures, in addition to sheer physical proximity. However, some people transcend these barriers, reappearing year after year and cycle after cycle. Thor was one of those people. For the most part, those people with whom I’ve worked have strived toward similar utilitarian good – even if not always from the same angle. It has always been remarkable to me when I’ve found myself across the primary campaign battlefield from someone with whom, just a cycle earlier, I was sharing a trench. Tensions flare, but are then usually diminished by the idea that we’re professionals and, at the end of the day, the political squabbles should be left behind, sublimated to our greater ideals and friendships. Thor and I never really “fought” on opposing sides, but he personified this brotherhood and sisterhood of political involvement. Perhaps this is a variation on the meaning Bill Bradley associates with an “ethic of connectedness.” It is no coincidence that I associate solidarity with the alumni of the Bill Bradley campaign, in particular. Some colleagues from that campaign (my first full-fledged campaign job) remain close, close friends, and the ongoing email traffic on our community listserv helps me feel connected to others I have never met. Sentimentality aside, even if time and distance intrude, we were once something of a family – a family forged by a monumental challenge and united by a common purpose. Using this metaphor, I was just a newborn, working on the Bradley campaign for a few months. Nonetheless, I was a newborn in a family to which Thor belonged. The first time I met Thor was in Iowa. Over the 1999 Christmas holiday, I rook ten days of vacation from my position as Legislative Correspondent for U.S. Senator Russ Feingold to work in the Bradley campaign’s state communications shop. Iowa was shockingly frigid. I arrived in Des Moines on a Greyhound bus from Chicago, after flying to Illinois from Washington, DC, only to learn that it would be several hours before anyone could reasonably expect staff to arrive at headquarters. Unbelievably, I was still in the pre-cell phone stage of my life, and these first couple of hours (and days) in Des Moines were, at best, alienating. After futzing about the bus station for a couple hours, I got a ride to campaign headquarters and met the rapidly expanding staff. Thor, as Operations Director, was responsible for any number of logistical concerns, including transportation, cell phone usage, laptop leasing, and other mysterious aspects of the campaigns about which I was still unware. Thor was also partly responsible for my decision to stay in Iowa for weeks beyond my allotted vacation time. The night before I was to return to Washington and the comfy confines of Capitol Hill, Thor joined a cadre of other senior Bradley staffers who proceeded to get me good and drunk, and to convince me to abandon my Thrift Savings Plan and Federal Employee Health Benefit Program for the uncertain and unsuccessful world of presidential primary politics. I have no regret for blindly following my somewhat naïve idealism. What I do have is an enormous appreciation for Thor’s assistance in helping me follow it. After submitting my abrupt resignation letter to the Feingold office, I approached a very intense, budget conscious, yet empathetic, Thor. Whether he saw the near total desperation in my eyes (and wanted to avoid the scene of me groveling at his feet), I will never know for sure. For whatever reason, Thor saved me from having to basically hitchhike to the office each morning by issuing me a rental car, a key to the office, and a cell phone - assets that helped me endure the long hours and harsh Iowa weather. I do not know if these assets were standard issue for all communications staff, nor I did not stop to ask. Like a drowning victim who has just been thrown a life preserver, I was just glad to be on my way to safety. Without Thor’s help, I most certainly would have been melted, not molded, by the almost presidential pressures. I definitely would not have continued pursuing my path, a path that has been extremely rewarding personally, if not financially. Thor continued to be helpful to me as the years passed. I vaguely recall him offering me a job, or at least recommending me for one, during the 2000 campaign cycle. I remember him inviting me to drop by his home, and juggling the tasks of generously sharing me career guidance as he rearranged boxes around a small English basement apartment off Pennsylvania Avenue SE into which he had just moved or from which he was in the process of vacating. I hovered over the clutter and chaos, soaking in his wisdom, and it helped me eventually land a job on Capitol Hill. Several years later, I bumped into Thor again at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He was working on fundraising with a group he called The Wu-Tang Clan, referring to a committee supporting Congressman David Wu of Oregon, not the rap music group. Although unpredictable and somewhat quirky, these brief encounters with Thor Hesla wove a thread through the fabric of my political development the last eight years. This thread has helped me believe that “we” political operatives may not see each other often, but we will see each other again. My grandfather used to advise me not to say “goodbye.” Say “so long”, he would say, for “goodbye” is finite. I regret that I will not have the opportunity to say either to a true champion of peace and progress, Thor Hesla. The day after Thor’s death, the impact he had on my life seemed to come full circle. As the Press Lead for a prospective visit by Hillary Clinton to New Mexico, I was introduced to the Advance Lead, a seasoned political pro named Mark Sump, who’s been in the business since before I graduated High School. As he got off a telephone call, Mark turned to me and began leading into a conversation by saying, “did you hear about the terrorist attack in Afghanistan the other day…” I recognized where he was taking the conversation. Although I had only known Mark for a matter of hours, I correctly, but presumptively, interrupted, “Thor was a friend of mine too.” This moment reaffirmed my belief that our interwoven community of progressive political operatives will continue to stitch together our sometimes tattered lives. More acutely, the moment made me realize just how many lives Thor Hesla had touched. In the incredibly witty and hilarious, but biting, commentary Thor authored in Slate Magazine about the incorrigible and insidious Ann Coulter, he describes himself as that guy eating potato skins, drinking a beer, and reading the sports page. Although an apt description, my vision of Thor has now changed. My lasting vision of Thor will be as the spirit standing behind two weary Democratic political operatives from opposing campaigns. His arms are wide, his smile large, and his hands are grasping the two outer shoulders of these enemy combatants, keeping them close when they have every reason to be at other ends of the room. I know Thor Hesla will be missed. He is already.
I met Thor in Fort Wayne, Indiana during a special election race in 1989. I took 10 days off coursework to become a teacher to volunteer to help my friend Inga Smulkstys, who ran many of Jill’s campaigns. The seat was formerly held by Dan Quayle, and was on Lee Atwater’s list of seats to protect. This was a time of realizing and coalescing the power of effective Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts. Inga was obviously well-connected with some of the youngest and most talented political organizers. These people really wanted to win and give Atwater the big finger. The campaign was a who’s-who of future stars: Jimmy Stienwinder, Michael Pitts, Jill Alper, Maren and Thor Hesla, Jeff Eller, Mary Meagher and please forgive me, lots of other key individuals. I went to the University of Chicago and was accustomed to really smart people, but not people like Thor who were also witty and fun as hell. And the coolest thing happened – we won. I stayed connected with a lot of these folks socially because the only school system desperate enough to hire a rookie teacher was Prince Georges County Public Schools, just across the Anacostia River from DC. I didn’t work with Thor again until 1992. Jill Alper had hired me to be a Field Director with the Coordinated Campaign in Michigan and when Clinton/Gore won, I headed to DC to party. He was in the Hawk and Dove and while exiting to drive Eileen Parisse home he yells at me, “Hey, want a job on the Inauguration Committee doing transportation?” I yelled back, “No way, You guys will be working too hard through the whole thing.” But a couple days later I realized that I would soon be out of coins and went down to the Committee to get a job. Thor used to love telling this story because I managed to get on payroll just by going to personnel and throwing out Thor and Michael Pitts’ names. He loved to spin it as a most wicked, underhanded endeavor. But I just thought I was following procedure: Thor asks if you want a job in a bar and a couple days later, you show up and fill out paperwork. Thor was shocked and amazed when I showed up in the Transportation Department – hired and ready to rumble. Thor delighted in telling folks about my bowling ball-sized balls launched for my sinister endeavors. Thor’s desk was behind mine. One of my jobs became walking Thor when his head was going to explode. I got so good at it that one day this fella Ernie, from Parades, came in to see Thor to get another vehicle. He apparently left the car he was assigned on the sidewalk at the Mall and it was towed away. I was in my own private Idaho when he was explaining this to Thor, but I could literally feel Thor’s veins throbbing in his big, scarred head behind me. I turned around in time to witness Thor punch a rather macho-sized hole in the wall behind his desk. Big walk. Don’t get the wrong idea. I had to be walked too. The other most vivid Thor memory at the PIC (Presidential Inaugural Committee) happened at some god-awful-early staff meeting. Michael Pitts gives people a long leash but if they poop on someone’s shoes, there are consequences. Several times in a row, our colleagues showed up late to our morning staff meeting. So Michael kept making them earlier and earlier. So at about 6:30am one day, Thor makes this proclamation in his booming Thor voice, “From now on, it’s everybody’s job to protect Kym Spring.” At the 11th hour, Michael, after months of meetings and supportive documents that Thor generated, had gotten permission to hire about 80 drivers to supplement the volunteer driver program and word was out on the street. As Thor put it, “Word is out on the street and everyone in DC thinks they can get money if they can just get to Kym Spring and they’re desperate.” He was right of course, but a barricade Thor had installed with a huge skull and crossbones sign generated by David Page provided the necessary protection. Thor had such a succinct way of boiling things down to the bare essentials. Another story Thor loved to tell occurred when we were going to Ann Campbell’s funeral. Unlike most of the politicos, I didn’t know Ann, but I loved her son Jimmy and was really upset he lost his mom. I picked up Thor and we were en route to Union Station to take the train to NYC. I had parked behind his apartment and was heading down a little alley to get out. There was a stupid car parked with little space to pass. So I floored it. Thor told people repeatedly that I decided we were in a cartoon and if I just went fast enough, my car would elongate and clear the parked car. Well we weren’t and didn’t. Clipped both side mirrors and raised my insurance rates. But we made it to the train in time and gave Thor much future fodder. While it makes me enormously sad to think that there’s no more fodder, I am one of the Pitt’s Nation, a title Michael humbly objects to, and I’ve been blessed to have been through the faces and fazes of Thor for 19 years. Thor loved music and the last time we spoke, just before he left for Afghanistan, he shared some of his recommended tunes with me. When I heard about his murder on Monday, I actually wrote down, in huge font size, Thor is dead, so I wouldn’t wake up the next day and think it was just a bad dream. And the only song I’ve listened to this week is from Jeff Buckley’s GRACE CD, Hallelujah [listen to it on YouTube here]. This song was played when the Mark Harmon/Secret Service character on West Wing was gunned down in a party store. It makes me feel the pain when I don’t want to but I need to. While I’ll probably be a sobbing idiot, I look forward to seeing everyone who can make it to DC on Feb. 24th.
Mistah Thor - he dead.
A penny for the Old Guy. Seven days. It's been a week since I heard the news that Thor Hesla, my friend, the younger brother I never had, and my affable companion of many years, was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan. Thor, I can see you still.
- Thor, Maren's weird kid brother, bouncing, bouncing, bouncing a ball against the house. Did the rhythm soothe you? The one-two-THREE-four as you bounce, bounce, bounce the ball. It ricochets from the concrete patio to the brick wall and back again. You catch it and throw it again, never missing. Odd. Focused. Persistent.
- Thor, the baby albino seal popping your head up in the swimming pool, white curls slick and transparent, ruddy cheeks glistening, white skin bright in the sun, close-set eyes not quite confident without your glasses. Playful. Innocent. Vulnerable.
- Thor, the verbal flame-thrower (version 2.0) and jouster (version 4.0) who chose never to suffer fools quietly, calling a woman he just met the nun-cola because she'd never had it and never would, zinging Howard about his prediction that Obama would win in New Hampshire with an email entitled "The Audacity of Nope," and preferring, hard truth to pleasant aphorisms. Quick. Biting. Brilliant.
- Thor, the walking sight gag, flinging yourself through objects, out of cars, and into danger because pain is secondary to humor. Jumping up at the end of a particularly impressive Serpentine! dash, drop and roll, and ending with a flourish. Funny. Imaginative. Indestructible.
Alas, not indestructible. Thor would insist that we all appreciate the ironies, so I have to mention them here so he can rest in peace. The attack was timed to coincide with the Norwegian delegation? He was in the Serena Hotel because he was exercising? Please. In a bar, OK, we would all understand that. Electrocuted while splashing naked in a fountain, we'd all have to admit that sounded likely. But last Monday's news sounded like a hideous made-for-TV movie. Except it was all true, horribly true. Thor was shot, murdered damn it, by someone who knew only that he was a Westerner, not that he was Thor, the God of Thunder. They had no idea that they shot Thor, the life of the party, that they killed Thor, my long-time friend. If this crime had happened in the U.S., it would be considered a hate crime. But it seems so much worse than that. Thor's light was extinguished... and for what? Thor's Atlanta memorial was packed with friends old and new and his website has an unbelievable number of postings from friends, co-workers, former teachers, strangers, a Congressman and a Senator. Bill Clinton called to express his condolences. Our pain at Thor's loss is - like Thor himself - larger than life. What can we make of this Thor-sized grief? Thor lived a Big Life. He was our April Fool. He entered rooms loudly, assaulted challenges willingly (the jagged scar on his forehead earned while rock climbing finally faded), hopped in friends' cars bound for far-away places instantly, played without fear of failure, traveled widely, cajoled women brashly, drank lustily, ate heartily, and guffawed daily - often through his nose. Most of us live more demure lives. What we see in Thor is some of what we might like to be, but feel bound by politeness and our responsibilities to our husbands, wives, children, jobs, mortgages, pets, in-boxes, gardens, schedules. You know, the stuff - big and small - that all our lives are made of. While our lives are filled with Oh, I couldn't, Thor's life was filled with, Sure, why not. Why not ask folks to give you a car or a couch? Why not show up at St. Olaf and see if you can talk your way into college? Why not move to Kosovo and try to bring democracy to the world? Why not indeed? If Thor's passing can create tears all over the world and if Thor can, even in death, still bring together new friends and reconnect old ones, then we owe it to Thor to make something Big to commemorate his Big Life. Although we all appreciated and enjoyed watching and sharing pieces of the Big Life Thor lead, most of us would not have traded places with him. We would not willingly separate from the many responsibilities and connections we have made that bring meaning to our lives. For the most part, we like the routines of our families and our lives. But we see the fun and the joy in living as Thor chose to do, and we admired his willingness to wear his passions on his sleeve. We can honor our friend by living a tiny piece of our own Big Life. We can find our passions and live them Large. We can take a slice of our own lives and commit to doing a few things Big. We can be the life of the party instead of the wallflower waiting for someone else to liven things up. We can thorganize a ski trip for our friends. We can write our own Big Letters. We can say Yes to a weeknight invitation instead of the responsible No, thanks, and still show up to work ready to work the next morning. We can tell a funny, bawdy joke. We can visit Jellystone Park and the second largest ball of string. We can play silly games without rules, jump in fountains on prom dates, quote Latin, pen parodies, and write the next great American novel. Say it with me. Sure, why not? Goodbye and Godspeed, Thor. I will miss you my whole life.
As mentioned elsewhere, I first met Thor when, awoken from sleeping in my dorm room bed at Vassar College, he greeted me with "Damn, you ARE a big Mother-Fucker!" Thor was 17 and I was 19 and it was early 1980. We saw each other off an on over the next few years. 1984 was a very hard year for me, and I ended up moving to Atlanta to join Maren, Thor and Betty in an effort to recover from the death of my mother, and the (temporary) loss of my relationship with my future wife Allison. After a few weeks on Betty's couch, Maren and I got an apartment in an older condo complex. Since free food and drink were in the offing, Thortron became a regular fixture, which was ok because we didn't have much furniture. He sometimes slept in a tent Maren and I kept erected in the living room. The next year and a half was a blur of nights at Manuals and Doogans, watching the big charity concert by the pool with a blender and TV, and general post college immoderation. We drank, played rugby, and every Christmas - along with Dave Hesla - shot spare ornaments with a Red Ryder BB gun in the backyard. In June of 1986 I could see the writing was on the wall - summer was coming and I couldn't take another summer in Atlanta. As I've always said, it's not the heat, it's the stupidity. My Atlanta friends - both of them - hate that. So like Jed Clampet I loaded up the truck - er BMW 320i - with all of my and Thor's posessions and set out on a roadtrip to California to check out law schools. Whe I say the car was full - you will just have to use your imagination on 2 big guys and all our stuff in a smalllish car. We had 2 guide books with us - Roadside America and Good Food/Road Food. We drove for about 3 weeks, stopping at typical locations like Wall Drugs, but also at the second largest ball of twine (now the largest), Strouds Fried Chicken in KC, and other hotspots. My personal highlight was a stop in Colorado Sprngs where I was able to use a phone designed to call local motels, cabs, etc, and by clicking on the receiver, call our friend Betty in Atlanta. Thor was dubious, thinking I was playing a prank, but when he realized that I had completed the call he prostrated himself on the ground and declared me his personal guru. In Nebraska we got hit by a twister including being pelted with golf-ball sized hail the dents from which remained a reminder of the trip until I sold the car years later. We were so shaken by the storm that when we eventually made it to a town with a bar(crawling at about 5 mph) we bought a bottle of Jack Daniels and spent a few hours chilling out. We also stopped in Las Vegas and did Fly Away which put us in a grain silo with a DC4 engine blowing 120 mph winds up into us so we could hover. Back then both of us easily made the 220 pound maximum weight for the adventure.I remember the feeling of "flying" like it was yesterday. We got to San Francisco, and Thor moved into my living room, beginning a symbiotic 5-6 year mooch-athon. I say symbiotic, because Thor knew that you could totally sponge off a friend if you kept him amused, went out for a drink when he wanted, and did a good job cleaning the apartment. After about 6 months Thor got his own house and spent a few more years happily underemployed in California. Thor moved on to much bigger and better things, and I won't recount them here. But I will share a few observations about the Man. Whatever else you say about him, Thor was a lover. He loved ideas and books, and conversation. He loved people and friends in a way I am frankly very jealous of. He loved food and drink, and especially free food and drink. This was a man who know what to do with a buffet. Thor loved women - really. And he loved his family. And he was pathologically in love with his nephew and niece. He loved politics - the game and the practice. He loved policy as much as strategy. God he loved the written and spoken word. He could make you laugh to the point of pain - see The Dwarf story to the left. He loved to read - we shared reading lists all the time. He loved himself. Frequently women left him no option, but he could amuse himself endlessly in both ways. He really, really loved cheese. A 3-pound Edam had no chance against a motivated Thor. Throw in a bottle of wine and the die was cast. He was generous and a mooch. People gave him cars, and he gave people his time and attention and love. He was a rugby player, a politician, a crank, a son, a sports-fan, a boy who became a man, an illusion, a legend, a humanitarian, a human being.
Thor was my best friend at St. Olaf College, and if you would have told me that after I first met him I would have transferred.
Thor & Cary at St. Olaf freshman year
Thor was a bizarre guy – big and lumpy and extra white, graceless and boorish. But he was brilliant, had an exceptional wit, and an infectious energy and enthusiasm. Above all, Thor had an abiding love of laughter and THE GOOD TIME. Thor was one of those kids who seemed to have been born six grade levels ahead of everyone else. While the rest of us were out playing kickball, Thor was apparently in his bedroom reading Euripides. Even his humor was often peppered with five dollar words and abstruse references to philosophy, mythology, and classic literature. I remember once, after Thor heard me pontificating about something to a few friends, he said, “You tell ‘em, Heidegger.” I still don’t get it. Coming from anyone else, this would have sounded insufferably pedantic, but Thor was utterly unself-conscious about it. If anything, he tried to suppress his learning in order to make us feel at ease (or, more likely, to ensure that we’d still hang out with him). The St. Olaf Thor was a man-boy of stark incongruities. He was, for example, equally at home discussing mythology as scatology. He always seemed to me like an Ivy League professor co-habiting the same body as an especially silly 8th grader. His approach to women was equally hard to reconcile. He loved and revered women, but he wasn’t against a little misogynistic humor. The same guy who idolized his sister also wrote a book during our freshman year entitled Mind Control and the Saber-Toothed Wench. Thor’s outlook on the whole college experience was similarly schizophrenic. He loved learning – just not assigned learning. Of the hundreds of days I spent with him in college, I cannot once recall him studying. I vividly remember him reading newspapers and (unassigned) novels, but never anything required. Thor reveled in the fun and camaraderie of college, but was perhaps a trace bored by the incidental academic part. I have a pretty smart six-year-old son and I suspect Thor regarded college in the same way my son looks at kindergarten. This is a blast but, seriously, tell me something I don’t know. Thor was even a study in contrasts athletically. He was in the bottom percentiles physically, but he absolutely loved sport. By sheer force of will, he made his body do lots of things it had no business doing – running, rugby and rock-climbing to name a few. It was the same with dancing. Thor couldn’t wait to have a few beers and hit the dance floor, but it was sheer coincidence if one of his paroxysms happened to move in time with the music. It was as if the guy had undergone a complete rhythmectomy. My collection of Thor anecdotes is novel-length. War and Peace-length, actually. His time at St.Olaf had to be – God help us if it wasn’t -- the apex of Thor’s silliness. Since most of you didn’t know Thor during his St. Olaf years, here are some representative stories.
Thor & his technicolor dreamcoat
- Thor owned a plush, floor-length bath robe with multi-colored vertical stripes. Most mornings, he would get out of bed in his boxer shorts, brush his teeth, put on his robe and flip-flop sandals, and shuffle over to the cafeteria for breakfast. There, the Norwegian Joseph would gather with friends to enjoy an unhealthy breakfast before the bemused stares of a hundred or so hyper-normal Lutheran co-eds. Occasionally, when I would be introduced to new people on campus, they would respond “Oh, yeah. I’ve seen you around -- you eat with the guy in the robe.”
- Thor believed that the undersized desk in his dorm room was not a suitable writing implement for an aspiring novelist. But since he didn’t have the money to buy a new desk, he did the resourceful thing: He removed the large wooden side-by-side closet doors, sawed L-shaped notches out of a corner of each door, and fitted the notched corners around two legs of his bunk-bed. He added a few cinder blocks for support and, voila, became the only freshman in America with his own conference table.
- One of the great joys of my college years was timing a punch-line so that Thor would aspirate whatever he was drinking into his lungs. On one occasion, Thor and I were eating lunch with a few friends in the cafeteria. Just as a large swig of orange pop reached Thor’s epiglottis, I made a crack about a philosopher we were studying. Orange pop shot out of his nose and mouth, spraying his tray of food. When he recovered, he pronounced that henceforth the act of delivering a punch-line resulting in the ejection of beverage through nose or mouth shall be known as a “Spinoza,” in honor of the eminent Dutch philosopher. We still called it that 25 years later. Speaking of philosophers, Thor and I took Introduction to Western Philosophy together. It was a small class and the professor arranged our seats in an intimate circle to facilitate discussion. Thor and I sat across from each other. Depending upon how dull the class was, I would try to make him laugh, ideally at the most inappropriate time. One day while we were discussing particularly somber subject matter – like Socrates drinking the hemlock – I did something to get Thor laughing. If you never saw Thor try to suppress socially inappropriate laughter, you really missed something. His reaction in philosophy class followed the usual pattern: A broad, tight-lipped grin came to his face and he looked down to avoid further eye contact. He folded his right arm across his chest, resting the other elbow on that arm and holding the bridge of his nose between his left thumb and forefinger. He closed his eyes, turned beet red, and bounced up and down making high-pitched squeaking noises between bounces.
“Thor” the professor asked, “May I help you?”
Bounce, squeak, bounce, squeak
“Thor, is there something you’d care to share with us?”
BOUNCE, SQUEAK, BOUNCE, SQUEAK, BOUNCE
“Perhaps you should excuse yourself.”
Step, step, SQUEAK, step, step, SQUEAK, open door, SQUEAK, close door, muffled squeaks
- Here’s another inappropriate laughter story: One summer, Thor flew to Minneapolis to stay with me for a week. His visit coincided with a dinner my girlfriend’s father was hosting for me – sort of a meet-the-new-boyfriend affair. I knew it would be disastrous to invite Thor along, but I figured it would be safer than leaving him alone with my parents for several hours – so along he came. The dinner was pretty formal – Cornish game hens served on china, that sort of thing. My girlfriend’s father was fairly formal himself, slightly humorless, and not a particularly facile conversationalist. Even though there were ten people seated around the dining table, there were lots of awkward silences, with only the sound of forks and knives gently scraping porcelain. During one of these interminable silences, I glanced across the table at Thor to see how he was holding up. To my horror, he was smiling, looking down, holding the bridge of his nose. Inevitably, he began to quake and squeak. Everyone looked at him, then at me, searching for some explanation. I thought about blaming it on an obscure Tourette’s-like condition but didn’t think I could pull it off. Instead, I made the worst possible decision and asked Thor to share with us what it was he found so funny. Gasping and squeaking, Thor said “I … was just… thinking… this corn is … special.”
Since no corn had been served, the comment needed some explanation. And since Thor was incapacitated, I was forced to step up.
“Uh, sorry everyone,” I stammered. “You’ll have to excuse my friend. That’s a line from the movie Deliverance. That’s all.”
The father: “What’s the significance of it?”
Me: “Oh, it’s not really relevant to anything. Thor has a bad habit of making random comments just to amuse himself. Nothing to it, really.
The girlfriend’s brother: “That’s a great movie. Isn’t that the scene at the end where Jon Voigt breaks down crying at dinner and Ned Beatty tries to break the unbearable silence by commenting that the corn is special?”
Me: “Uh, I never really interpreted it that way, no.” Check please.
- At some point during our freshman year, Thor scored a date with a junior counselor named Ann. Ann was bright, attractive, and funny. Despite persistent exertion, Thor didn’t do a lot of dating so this was a big deal. On the day of the big date, Thor shaved and showered, cleaned his room, bought a bottle of white wine and two candles, put on a sport coat and his signature black beret, and took Ann to an $8-entrée restaurant in downtown Northfield. I wanted to show my support, so I got a couple of guys to hide with me in his dorm room when he and Ann returned from the date. We waited in the room until we received our lookout’s call that the couple had entered the building. I flipped off the light and we assumed our positions: I lay under the bedspread on the top bunk, wedged between the mattress and the wall; Pete hid behind a recliner in the corner; and Rick stood underneath Thor’s robe, which hung from a hook on the wall. Thor unlocked the door and opened it for Ann. “Ladies, first” he said. Did Thor just say “Ladies, first?” He switched on a desk lamp and retrieved the candles. He lit the candles and turned off the lamp. He intimately arranged a couple of chairs alongside the conference table, and produced two wine glasses. “Please … sit down.” He uncorked the bottle, poured the wine, and made a toast. “To a wonderful evening.” Oh, my God. This is spectacular. He continued the gentlemanly, disturbingly un-Thor-like banter for several minutes. Things like “Are you enjoying the wine?” and “You look lovely tonight.” It was exactly like Mr. Rogers might behave if he were trying to seduce a woman. This was a side of Thor we didn’t know existed and it was agonizingly funny. Apparently, Rick thought so too because, as I peeked down from my perch, I saw the robe shaking. Soon after, Pete let out a loud snort from behind the recliner. Ann jumped out of her seat and saw Pete behind the recliner. She let out a scream-gasp and ran out of the room. Date over.
Recalling this now I feel a little guilty, but I’m comforted knowing Thor would have done it to me if he’d have thought of it first.
My reminiscences of Thor focus on the silly stuff because that’s what he would have wanted. But there was another, bigger side to Thor: He was a devoted son and brother. He was a person of depth and substance. He was passionate and dedicated. He loved learning and writing and the English language. He loved to discuss life’s big questions. He was obsessively interested in current affairs, and he relished a vigorous debate with a qualified adversary. He was a good man and a loyal friend. Thor was the greatest character I’ve known in my life. I loved him and will always miss him. EDITORS NOTE - Ok, now some things come into focus. In 1980 while Thor was a freshman at St. Olaf, 1,200 miles away in Poughkeepsie, NY Maren, Betty, Matt and I, along with assorted other FOT (Friends of..) had adopted the expression "TGL." Actually, it was "TGL?" since it was a question not a statement. TGL? TGL? It asked "Thor get laid?" Because poor Thor waited an exceptionally long time to find a willing Lutheran Lass to climb into his bunk-bed. TGL? TGL? Well, now I know that this epic quest was savagely undercut by Thor's so called friends at St. Olaf. For shame Cary, for shame! Still, your undermining couldn't prevent TGL WELL BEFORE he turned 30. HLY
And so, my cousin, welcome home. When we were children, we always used to end our bedtime prayer with a listing of the cousins: "God bless, Jeff, Gary, Zoe, Susan, Robin, Chad, Dorothy, Sarah, Maren and Thor." The list always started with the children of our oldest, Aunt Jane, and ended with the siblings of our youngest, Aunt Mary. And Thor, you were always the last, the baby, the youngest of us, but probably the one cousin who has done the most to make the world a better place. You are also the first cousin in the Stegner family of our generation to die. Although several of the other cousins traveled to other lands as tourists and for shorter work trips, you and I are the two who chose to live and experience life as citizens not only of the USA, but of the world. As I sit in shock from the news of your death and read the other remembrances of you, I begin to understand how important it was to both of us to define ourselves this way. You once told me how much your two years at St. Olaf College meant to you. While the rest of the world relates the big touring-choir, holding hands and singing "Beautiful Savior" with the famous contralto solo in the middle that your own mother sang, my sound-bite is different. I remember my singing teacher from my own years there, Don Hoiness, who was a classmate and good friend of both your parents, singing an unaccompanied solo by Priaulx Rainier to the famous John Donne Devotion, Nunc, leno sonitu, and the sung phrases leap out at me:
No man is an island, intire of itself;
every man is a peece of the Continent a part of the maine;...
Any man's death diminished me because I am involved in Mankinde,
If any of the cousins were able to take the essence of our Norwegian-Lutheran theological heritage to heart and commit it to a meaningful life, it was you. My mind flits back to the important memories that make you my unique cousin. I remember the day you were born, and the joyful telephone call to my mother, who then explained to me that I had another cousin, and his name was Thor! Nobody else I knew had a cousin named Thor, and although I needed a little background information about Norwegian Gods, I was very proud. I remember the cousins together in Afton, Minnesota. We all climbed onto the back of a trailer, pulled by the tractor cousin Gary was driving slowly up the hill to the house. Only three or four years old at the time, you fell off. Most children your age would take a big gasp of air and burst into tears. After your deep breath, however, a slow, big grin developed on your face. You got up, and ran to catch us, your little legs pumping as fast as they could go with your curly, blond hair gleaming in the sunlight of a perfect summer afternoon. I shouted at Gary to stop, jumped off the back of the tractor, scooped you up into my arms and hugged you close. Even at that tender age, with no words spoken, I could tell that you noticed my newly-formed teenage shape. Another grin spread across your face. The subsequent pictures of you with beautiful women who look wonderful in small bikinis which accompanied your Christmas letters to us have been no surprise to me. I remember a lazy, hot and humid afternoon shortly after your family had moved to Atlanta. We had come to visit for two weeks. It was a picnic in a pine forest where the needles covered the ground like a carpet. We ate and drank and laughed and spent our time in the moment, enjoying being family and cousins. You were no more than eight years old, and David had not finished his beer. You were so thirsty and he gave you the last to drink. You chugged it down in expert fashion and with great personal satisfaction. (Mom never let US do that... but it was your destiny). I remember you at Aunt Mary's funeral service in Ortonville. Just for a second, there was a shaft of sunlight that came in through the stained glass windows of the church that caught your blond, curly hair. It gave you a brief a halo, as you, in the first row, bent over the casket to look calmly and serenely into the face of your mother. And my last memory of you is our first Christmas in Virginia. I had come back to the United States, an American who needed to reconnect with family and friends to complete her life. You were there with David, Maren, the two children and Bernard. We shared the Day-after-Christmas soup, and were family. I was so proud to know cousins who knew DC so well and knew the Clintons! And looking at you in profile, you were the spitting image of Uncle Vince, and could have been his son with the shape of your nose. In the genetic crap-shoot of life, of course, it meant that your receding hairline never had a chance... And soon, Thor, you will come back to Washington and your family -- a branch of our family tree that has been suddenly and brutally broken. We cousins are all old enough to understand that the grief of your loss will become an old friend. You will visit us at moments when we least expect you, and we will always welcome you to our hearts. Welcome home, cousin. From your cousin, Dorothy
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