A Legacy of Love

Saturday, December 01, 2012 Road Junkies 1 Comments

Two weeks ago, we were in Seattle driving toward a pilgrimage to the city's iconic Space Needle when we received a shocking call from our nephew.  He delivered unthinkable news.  Our brother-in-law Don had experienced a massive heart attack and died instantly.  Even today with two weeks to process this new reality, it still has a ring of untruth.  He was only 65 years old.  

Don has been a treasured part of our family for 44 years.  More brother than in-law, he has been my sister Jeanne's soul mate since I was in high school.

Jeanne and Don met when they left their small hometowns to go off to college.  A handsome, dark-haired athlete, Don caught the eye of a young blonde coed walking across the quadrangle at Livingston State College.  And he was just as enamored with Jeanne, squiring her to fraternity parties and athletic events, proud to have this pretty girl on his arm.  It didn't take them long to realize that they wanted this arrangement to become permanent, and wedding clothes were selected even before the caps and gowns were ordered.

Young love thrived and grew, along with their family.  Three boys were born in rapid succession, beginning with Joey.  Before Joey turned two, Clint was born, and a scant year later, David arrived.  By this time, Don was working his dream job as a high school teacher and football coach, and Jeanne was a more-than-full-time stay-at-home mom.   Though they still harbored thoughts of having a little girl, Don was delighted with the prospect of growing his own backfield.

1977
By the time the two older boys were enrolled in elementary school and pee wee football, Don and Jeanne found themselves expecting again.  This time the chromosome roulette wheel landed on XX, and Gina was born just after David's fourth birthday.  As much as he loved coaching, Don recognized the financial challenge of rearing four children and left the football field, sacrificing his passion for more gainful employment in the insurance business to support his family.

Fatherhood was a more than ample replacement for football as the object of Don's enthusiasm.  He and Jeanne adored and supported their children and taught them to love and bolster one another.  Don also taught them football.  All three of the boys played the game through high school and college, while Gina predictably cheered from the sidelines.  Though they entered parenthood at young ages, Jeanne and Don sagaciously raised four kind-hearted and loving children—all college graduates who moved on to successful careers and families of their own.  Following in their father's footsteps, Joey and David also became Coach Thorntons, leaving their own marks on the lives of hundreds of young people.

2005
Once his fledglings had left the nest, Don answered the call to return to football, coaching another 15 years before retiring in 2007.  Though anyone would think he was entitled to some rest and relaxation, that's not the direction Don chose at the end of his career.  After he and Jeanne moved back to his hometown in north Alabama, Don served energetically on the city council and generously volunteered his time as a football coach at the local high school.

Coach Thornton
As a coach, Don tried to instill in his young players the same valuable lessons he taught his children.  Care deeply about one another.  Support each other.  Work together.  And even if your opponent is bigger or a little more talented, there's one quality in which you can always excel—effort.  And every player knew in his heart that Coach Thornton believed in him and wanted him to succeed.

There was nothing Don liked better than spending time with his family.  Their four children and 11 grandchildren were his and Jeanne's pride and joy.  Scattered around the Southeast, the homes of these offspring were at the top of Don's list of favorite places to travel to.  And he enjoyed his visits even better if there was some carpentry or woodworking project he could help out with while there.  Any event the grandchildren participated in was another good excuse for traveling.  From kindergarten graduations to dance recitals, these devoted grandparents wanted to be there in person.

Welcoming Baylinn, grandchild #10
The outpouring of love and support at the memorial events after Don's death spoke volumes about the life he lived and the influence he achieved.  A two-hour visitation stretched into more than four hours as friends and family, current and former players, colleagues and officials streamed in to express their respect and appreciation for what Coach Thornton had meant to them.  The local football team attended his funeral in their jerseys, and, at their request, formed a cordon of honor to pay their final respects as his coffin was carried from the service.  The flags in his hometown were lowered to half-mast in remembrance of his contributions to the community.

Grant, Joey and Big Daddy Don
On his last Saturday morning, Don awoke in a buoyant mood.  His beloved LCHS Bulldogs had convincingly won their second-round playoff game the night before.  And on Thursday evening, he had watched his oldest grandson, 12-year-old Grant, follow the family football tradition, playing quarterback in a recreation league game.  Small wonder that Don's signature Tarzan yell was heard issuing from the bathroom while he was shaving that Saturday morning.  Life was good.  He was in the company of his cherished wife, visiting one of his sons and three of his precious grandchildren.  Big Daddy, as the grandchildren called him, was very happy.

And then suddenly, without warning, he was gone.  Don leaves behind a legion of family, friends and football players who loved him and learned from him.  He will live on in three sons, a daughter and eleven grandchildren, who will continue to benefit from his lessons and his legacy of love. 

While we will all miss him dearly, Jeanne will feel that loss most profoundly.  For two-thirds of her life, she and Don have been joined at the heart.  They communicated with each other with looks and touches, even when words were left unspoken.  She finished his sentences.  He spoke what she was thinking.  And after almost 45 years, her heart still fluttered with giddy schoolgirl infatuation for her husband.  Don established a homestead in her heart a long time ago, and there he will remain.  He will always be with her, as close as every beat of her heart.

Jeanne, at a town festival, 2011
I'm gone now, but I'm still very near.
Death can never separate us.
Each time you feel a gentle breeze,
It's my hand caressing your face.
Each time the wind blows,
It carries my voice whispering your name.
When the wind blows your hair ever so slightly,
Think of it as me pushing a few stray hairs back in place.
When you feel a few raindrops fall on your face,
It's me placing soft kisses.
At night look up in the sky and see the stars shining so brightly.
I'm one of those stars and I'm winking at you and smiling with delight.
For never forget you're the apple of my eye.

--- Mary M. Green