Man's promising life ended by his troubled mind
BY MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008
7/20/08 at 2:33 AM
Watch interviews with two pastors
who knew James Thurow.
With long, tangled hair and clothes that smelled like rotten trash, James Thurow wanted to borrow $5.
"I'll pay you back."
Pastor John Stemple didn't say it out loud, but he thought it. Over the years, he's paid for food and clothes and even tanks of gas for the homeless who have wandered into East Side Christian Church. But he's never made a habit of handing out cash.
"This time, for some reason, I gave it to him. And I never expected to see him or the money again."
The next day, Thurow came back with $10.
"He wanted me to keep the other five for him, in case he ever needed it."
After that, Thurow showed up at the church almost every day, sometimes to borrow money, sometimes to use the phone in the lobby, sometimes to clean up in the bathroom sink.
Thurow even started practicing with the choir. But most of the time, he came just to talk to Stemple.
"At first, I didn't believe all the stories he told me — about graduating at the top of his class in high school, about being a lawyer and working for the state. But over time, I realized this was a very intelligent, very articulate man I was talking to."
Thurow liked to look for sweets in the trash behind Merritt's Bakery, just up the block from the church at 15th Street and Harvard Avenue, and he often slept in unlocked cars at the dealerships on 11th Street. On the coldest nights, his coat would freeze to the upholstery until he pried himself off the next morning, ripping the sleeves.
Earlier this year, Stemple and his wife helped Thurow get an apartment, but after just one month, Thurow had blown all his cash and was back on the streets.
"He was 53 years old," Stemple says, about the age of his own son. "But sometimes, he acted 13."
Last week, Stemple stood behind the pulpit with a bouquet of white roses decorating the altar, next to a framed photo of Thurow, his beard trimmed and hair nicely combed.
"Did we do enough?" Stemple asked, his voice cracking as several people in the congregation wiped away tears. "Is there anything else we could have done?"
'Needed to do more'
Looking back, the first sign of trouble might have come at Arizona State University, where Thurow struggled in some of his classes but still managed to finish law school in 1980.
Talkative and hyper, he got bored easily and seemed too busy for homework. His college roommate had to remind him to study.
"He had a hard time concentrating on anything for very long," remembers Mike Sauer, now an attorney in Indiana. "But he was extremely smart, witty, fun to be around. I never doubted that he had a bright future."
After graduation, Thurow practiced law for several years in Arizona, but his family began to notice wild mood swings — morbidly depressed one day, ecstatically happy the next. And both sides came with generous doses of alcohol — to deaden the pain when he was down, and to celebrate when he was up.
Especially after their mother died in the mid-1980s, Thurow's sister worried about him more and more.
"It got to where he didn't want to work," says Cathryn Thurow, only 18 months older than her brother and now living in San Francisco. "His mind was just working too fast, jumping from one thing to the next. Everything he said made sense, but he couldn't stay on one topic."
She offered to pay for a psychologist or alcohol treatment, but Thurow didn't see any need for it. He was fine. Maybe he should quit drinking so much, that's all.
Over the years, other family members sent money or bought things for him, but Thurow — known as Jim to his family — always squandered it.
"I keep asking myself if there was more that I could have done?" Thurow's sister takes a long pause on the phone before answering her own question. "The person who needed to do more to help Jim was Jim himself."
'Still have something'
Moving to Oklahoma in the mid-'90s, when he worked for Child Protective Services, Thurow tore out the front yard of his west Tulsa house and planted a field of sunflowers. He explained to his Alcoholics Anonymous group that wild flowers seemed more natural.
"He was a little eccentric, yeah," remembers Kathy Davis. "But he was clean-cut, well dressed and sober. He always had books with him, was always reading, because his mind was like a trap."
Exactly what happened next, only Thurow knew. Friends and relatives can offer only snippets.
He fell somehow and injured his hip, then started drinking again, using the leg pain as an excuse. The bipolar symptoms came back stronger than ever, and he lost his job, then his house.
For a while, he stayed at the downtown YMCA, but eventually couldn't afford it anymore. After that, he lived in a sleek, silver Airstream trailer that he pulled behind a used pickup, until somebody stole the trailer.
Thurow was homeless.
Earlier this year, he rejoined Davis' AA group, coincidentally meeting now at Eastside Christian.
"I wouldn't have recognized him," she says. "He looked like some kind of mountain man, but he had the same booming voice. That's how I knew it was him."
Five or six years ago, Thurow scraped together $800 to buy a beat-up Subaru hatchback, driving to the West Coast and back to visit old friends. And when he wanted a car again this year, he came back to the same dealership, Jim's Gems on 11th Street, a short walk from the church.
Jim Gill gave him a good deal on a used truck, and when it broke down after just a few weeks, Gill bought it back no-questions-asked. That gave Thurow enough cash to stay at a motel for a few days, then Gill looked the other way if Thurow wanted to sleep in the backseat of an unlocked car once in a while.
He'd drop by almost every day just to talk, if Gill wasn't too busy. And sometimes even if Gill was too busy.
"Religion, politics, philosophy he could have intelligent conversations about things you wouldn't expect a homeless guy to know anything about. If he didn't come around for a couple of days, I missed him."
On the last day of Thurow's life, July 10, Gill gave him a ride to a Family Dollar store on north Utica Avenue, where Thurow spent his last $4 on bread and peanut butter — not for himself, but to feed stray dogs.
Back at the dealership, Gill offered him another $2.
"He took one dollar and told me to hang onto the other one for him. That way, he would still have something if he needed it."
Thurow — or James, as the congregation called him — came to church drunk May 31, Stemple's last weekend as a full-time minister before stepping aside for a new pastor.
Thurow was upset and agitated, believing — incorrectly, Stemple says — that his friend was being pushed out by disgruntled parishioners.
Muttering accusations out loud, he kept interrupting until Stemple asked him to leave. Frustrated and exhausted, the pastor decided to take a break from trying to help Thurow, and hadn't seen him since.
"I'm still learning," Stemple teared up while speaking at the memorial service, "that James was a mirror for the best and the worst in me. I need to make better use of the talents and resources that have been given to me."
Stemple and his wife, Dawn, knew Thurow was probably dead as soon as they read the news that a body had been found inside the burned-out ruins of the old Ron's hamburger stand on 15th Street. He often broke into the vacant building to spend the night.
The fire and the cause of death remain under investigation, but officials suspect he passed out drunk while smoking a cigarette.
"A lot of people, each in their own way, tried to help James," Stemple concluded. "Now, we're all asking ourselves if there was more we could have done?
"The answer, frankly, is 'I don't think so.' "
Michael Overall 581-8383
James Thurow: The former lawyer was homeless when he died in a fire.