An Old Photograph
I have an old photograph that I cherish.
I cherish it now more than ever, and here is why. On Sunday, December 15, 2013, I found myself in an uncomfortable, almost surreal position: I attended a memorial service for a friend, Alex W. Thrower, who died suddenly at the age of 45. He left behind a wife and two young sons.
Here is his obituary in its entirety:
THROWER, Alexander Weatherly, 45, passed away in his sleep at his Richmond, Va. home on December 11, 2013. Alex had an indomitable wit and charm and was a true southern gentleman. To know him was to love him. Alex was born in Florence, S.C., to George Fraser Thrower and Lucy Shannon Crosland Thrower. He graduated from St. Andrew's School, Middletown, Del. (Class of 1986); University of Richmond (Class of 1990), where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity; and from George Mason University School of Law (1997). Alex devoted his career to energy and environmental policy work, including his roles as Senior Policy and Technical Advisor to the U.S. Department of Energy, focusing on the Yucca Mountain Project, Staff Counsel and Consultant to the President's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, and as Senior Fellow at the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council. At the time of his death, he served as principal of The Thrower Group advising clients on nuclear energy matters. He was a member of Centenary United Methodist Church, where he served as chair of the Finance Committee. Alex was predeceased by his father and is survived by mother; his wife, Meredith Sanderlin Thrower; two sons, John Godfrey Thrower and George Sanderlin Thrower; his sister, Mary Thrower Kulp and her husband, Scott; his mother-in-law, Mary Sue Sanderlin; his father-in-law, James L. Sanderlin and his wife, Ginger; his sister-in-law, Elaine Sanderlin Ryan and her husband, Sean; his brother-in-law, Dr. James Barry Sanderlin and his fiancee, Kate Savage; three wonderful nephews, James, George and Teddy; as well as by numerous relatives and an extremely devoted group of friends. Alex was beloved for his sense of humor and his passions were his family, his friends, reading and good food, which he often enjoyed preparing himself. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, December 15, 2013 at Centenary United Methodist Church, 411 E. Grace St., Richmond, Va. 23219, followed by a reception in the church's fellowship hall. Memorial donations may be made to Centenary United Methodist Church or to a charity of your choice.
Alex and I met through what we referred to as the “mother grapevine.” His mother, Lucy, and my mother, Laura, were good friends in our hometown of Florence, South Carolina. Because Alex was five years younger than I, we did not grow up as friends. I was enrolled in law school while he was still a high school student.
One day in the spring of 1990, Lucy Thrower called me on the telephone. At the time, I was working on nuclear waste transportation issues at an interstate compact organization known as the Southern States Energy Board (SSEB). It wasn’t a terrific job, but I was paying my dues as a young lawyer.
When I heard Lucy’s voice on the line, I experienced a sudden surge of panic. She had never called me at work before, and I thought she was going to tell me something had happened to my mother. When I realized my mom was not in mortal peril, my pulse slowed to its normal rate.
“I’m calling,” she said, “to ask if you have any open positions. My son is graduating from college and he needs a job.”
Nine times out of 10, I would not have been in a position to help. Yet Lucy’s call was fortuitous. A long-time SSEB staffer had recently departed for a new job, and we needed someone. We had not yet advertised the position.
I spoke with Alex on the telephone and confirmed that he was interested in employment. After scanning his resume, which he faxed into the office, I set up an interview appointment between Alex and my boss, Ken Nemeth.
I have discussed Nemeth elsewhere in my writings, so I will skip a long, involved description. Suffice it to say that he was a character. He displayed a sign on his desk that captured his personality perfectly: “Old age and treachery will outsmart youth and vigor every time.” Ken taught me that integrity, hard work, and educational prowess do not always equal success. In his agency, where sycophants ruled the day, he valued loyalty above all other virtues. I was eventually “laid off” because I was insufficiently attentive to his psychological needs.
But that is a story for another day.
On that long ago spring afternoon in 1990, Alex arrived in our lobby at the appointed hour decked out in his best suit and tie. His face was red and he was sweating profusely.
I stepped out to greet him and became alarmed. “Are you okay?”
He waved me away as he wiped his face and hands with a handkerchief. “I sweat a lot. It’s just my normal condition.”
I shrugged. “Okay. Well, anyway, welcome to SSEB.” I provided a five-minute synopsis of our activities while we waited for Ken to emerge from his office to conduct the formal interview.
Eventually, Ken’s office door popped open and he ambled down the halfway toward our conference room, where Alex and I sat chatting. I heard the change jingling in the Great Man’s pockets as he approached.
“Good luck,” I whispered to Alex as I departed.
Later, after the interview had concluded and Alex was gone, I knocked on Ken’s office door.
“Yeah?” He did not look up from writing his newsletter about scuba diving.
“How’d it go?”
“How’d what go?” He appeared to be genuinely perplexed.
“The interview with Alex.”
Ken gazed up at me and shook his head. “He sure sweats a lot.”
When he looked back at his newsletter, I realized no additional information would be forthcoming. I crept back to my office.
In the weeks that followed, Alex repeatedly called and asked whether a decision would be made soon. Each time I approached Ken about it, he would not answer one way or another.
Finally, I pressed him for an answer. “We have to tell him something,” I pleaded. “It has been almost two months since his interview. Either yes or no, but he needs a decision.”
Ken threw up his hands in exasperation. “All right,” he said. “We’ll hire the sweater! Now, get off my back.”
And so the sweater came to work at SSEB on Monday, July 16, 1990.
He was younger than I, and we had different interests and sensibilities. He had been a fraternity guy in college, and the Greek life held no appeal for me. He was much more outgoing and personable on his worst day than I ever was on my best. I was nominally his supervisor.
Nonetheless, despite our differences, Alex and I became good friends. He was smart — wickedly smart in that sardonic, “isn’t-the-world-a-zany-place?” way that I love — and shared much of my warped sense of humor. He possessed a strong work ethic. He was a sweet guy, too. One man usually does not say that about another man — it smacks of too much maudlin sentimentality — but a reluctance to express a thought does not make the thought any less true.
We had many adventures, my new friend and I, during our 19 months working together at SSEB. Most of the time, they involved western adventures in California, Nevada, Arizona, or New Mexico. As I traveled to various meetings to discuss nuclear waste issues, I asked Alex to accompany me so he could meet the participants and master the issues. He was a quick study.
Often, the meetings would start on a Monday or end on a Friday. If we stayed over a Saturday night, the airfare typically was far less expensive. SSEB’s travel policy allowed us to apply the differences in fares for personal use as long as the Saturday-night stay made the trip less expensive than it otherwise would have been. Alex and I took advantage of the liberal policy to explore places we would not have visited otherwise.
We once visited Yosemite National Park for the day and lacked hotel reservations for the evening. I assured him that we would have no problem finding a room for the night. Unfortunately, I had not counted on several festivals scheduled in the area that evening. We drove until the wee hours of the morning before we found solace in the Wagon Wheel Inn in Paso Robles, California, a no-tell motel that charged us $100 in cash for a room that would normally have cost $45. We awoke in the morning to discover our beds infested with ants and a feral cat running loose in the room.
On another occasion, we had ventured from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon without undertaking sufficient preparations. On the way back, we discovered that we had not gassed up the rental car before we headed out on the highway. We were two East Coast boys accustomed to seeing a filling station on every corner. We almost paid for our negligence by running out of gas at night in the desert. We rolled into town on fumes vowing to never again put ourselves into such an uncomfortable predicament.
Years later, in 1998, long after Alex and I had moved on from SSEB, he was living and working in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I flew out with my girlfriend (she later became my wife and eventually my ex-wife) to visit Alex. He was the perfect host. His apartment was immaculate and he loved to cook delectable meals. Imagine his horror, though, when we were following him through town—I was driving a rental car while Alex drove his car in front of us—and another driver rear-ended our vehicle. “Oh, my God,” Alex exclaimed, “my guests have been involved in a car wreck an hour after they landed!”
Mostly, though, I remember one special trip above all the others.
I brought an old pocket Instamatic camera with me. And so I have an old photograph that I cherish.
Mike (left) and Alex visit Graceland in 1991.
It is grainy and not especially clear, as old photographs typically appear. It shows Alex and me during a visit to Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland, in the fall of 1991. We had attended a meeting in St. Louis and had a day to kill. Therefore, we drove down to Memphis and visited Rock ‘n Roll Mecca. We both claimed to be Elvis fans, although I suspect we enjoyed the delicious tackiness of the garish costumes, cheesy movies, and outrageously decorated mansion more than anything. We even bought an old tape of Elvis’ greatest hits to listen to as we drove toward the Delta.
Anyway, I will never forget our day at Graceland and the happy times in our youth. We were two young men with blood in our veins, hope in our hearts, and Elvis in our ears.
I miss you Alex, old buddy. Perhaps we will meet again someday, somehow, somewhere. That is my hope.
In the meantime, I have an old photograph that I cherish.