Beyond the blogs: One manÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ¢ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂs death
By Philip Dawdy
Stuart Thayer loved walking and, in the end, it’s what undid him. He had lived in Seattle for 25 years and had become a fixture in the 15th Avenue East part of Capitol Hill. Thayer was a close friend of August Wilson, the legendary playwright who lived in the area before dying of cancer in 2005, and the two could be seen most mornings sitting in front of Caffe Ladro chatting with a few other men and laughing their butts off. Thayer was a writer himself, a well-regarded historian of the early American circus, and the two had stories.
I used to see Thayer strolling around the neighborhood – he lived on 17th Avenue East in a townhouse with a wife named Boyka and two black cats – and I’d say “Hello” and he would nod his head. Thayer, who turned 83 this year, was usually smoking a cigarette. He wore a brown beret. Until last year, he used a cane. Then, he switched to a walker. Each day, Thayer was out there walking and smoking. I’d see him a few times a day, making his way along East Republican Street, even in the rains of winter. He was off to meet a friend or to buy smokes or to just get out and move – one of those people you give an internal thumbs up to, a polestar of the neighborhood.
On June 15, Thayer was crossing East Republican Street from south to north at that street’s dead-end corner with 17th Avenue East. It was a little after 2 p.m., a warm, sunny day. Thayer had almost reached the sidewalk on the far side when he was rammed into by an 89-year-old man driving a red Honda Civic, according to eyewitnesses at the scene. Thayer was knocked to the street very hard. The old man in the Civic kept going, apparently oblivious to what he’d done. One of a group of women who had seen the accident ran after him and got him to stop.
Seattle Fire Department paramedics and Seattle police soon flooded the scene. They swept by me in a wave of wailing sirens as I returned from running errands. I walked over to see what was going on. As soon as I saw a walker in the street, I stopped. It was obvious what had happened and to whom it had happened. Police officers asked me and the women who’d seen the accident if we knew who the man in the street was. The women didn’t know and I told the officers the little I knew. Nice, older gentleman, probably out on his regular walk. Lives right around the corner. His name is Stuart.
The accident was mentioned on seattlepi.com’s Seattle 911 blog and on a few local blogs. Thayer’s age was initially reported by police as 90 years old. Seattlest.com the next day headlined a small post about the tragedy “Grumpy Old Man Driver Hits Grumpy 90-Year-Old Man.” It was one of those headlines that make you wonder if the blogosphere will ever get some standards. Thayer, who never came off to me as a grump, died June 24 from complications resulting from his injuries, one of an average of nine pedestrians killed each year in Seattle in auto-pedestrian collisions. Each victim has a story, of course, but chances are that Thayer’s would top most.
Thayer was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1926. He graduated from high school there and was drafted into the Army in 1944. He served on a tank crew in the 3rd Armored Division, Company D, 32nd Regiment. Thayer was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, one of World War II’s bloodiest battles, and was awarded the Purple Heart. His widow, Boyka, says that he still had shrapnel in his right knee when he died last month. In 1945, Thayer was also involved in liberating the Nordhausen concentration camp in Germany.
It’s difficult to make that kind of narrative fit with the old man I saw laying in the street and it’s even harder to square with “grumpy.”
On April 12, 1945, his crew rescued two teenagers who had escaped a forced death march at the hands of the SS. Thayer’s unit was in the Haartz Mountains when the teens, who’d been hiding from the SS by day and moving at night, popped out of a ditch and waved down the American tanks. The two, barely younger than Thayer and other members of his crew, were emaciated and were immediately taken in.
“They could have just thrown us K rations and moved on,” Eddie Willner, one of the rescued teens, told The Washington Post in 2002 when the paper wrote about a reunion between Willner and members of Company D, Thayer included, in Falls Church, Va. (Willner himself was quite a story. He eventually made his way to the U.S. with the help of the company, joined the Army and eventually rose to major. He died in 2008.)
Promoted to corporal and with combat over in Europe, Thayer was temporarily assigned to the athletic division of the Army’s special services. In 1946, he was put in charge of running a baseball league for the entire European Theater and became, in effect, the baseball commissioner of occupied Germany. Thayer, then 20, outfitted two dozen teams with equipment, scheduled games, arranged for publicity and reported scores to the Armed Forces Network. Thayer occasionally had to resort to impersonating an impatient colonel – with the colonel’s permission – in order to get scores reported by some teams, an experience he wrote about in a 1988 Sports Illustrated article.
Thayer was discharged later that year and returned to Ann Arbor, where he took a degree in literature from the University of Michigan. His goal was to be a writer, but with a young wife, Marilyn, who was pregnant, Thayer went to work in his father’s insurance agency. His wife later gave birth to a son, Preston.
Thayer did well in insurance and invested even better, but he was still bitten by the writing bug. During the late 1960s, he began documenting the history of the early American circus in the journal Bandwagon. He quit the insurance business altogether in 1975 and became a full-time writer. The career change wasn’t driven by a special affection for circuses, however.
“His interest in the American circus was more of an intellectual exercise than a passion,” Preston Thayer, his son, explained in an e-mail. “He loved the United States very deeply, and his research required that he visit dozens of small-town libraries throughout the country to read old newspapers, looking for circus advertisements, the primary source for his early work. He enjoyed drawing up the rosters of performers and charting the movements of the various troupes, but I suspect he enjoyed visiting the towns as much as doing the research.”
The circus of the 1700s and 1800s was far different from the multiringed sports-arena spectacle of today. It was also more important culturally than it is today. Circuses were smaller affairs then and were often the primary form of entertainment – without elephants – for many small and medium-size American cities in the days before radio, television and movies.
Thayer’s first book, “Mudshows and Railers,” was published in 1971. “Annals of the American Circus” appeared in 1976, and a succession of books followed all the way to 2006. He co-wrote “American Circus Anthology” with William Slout in 2005. The book is online on the Circus Historical Society Web site.
After the death of his first wife from brain cancer, Thayer moved to Portland, Maine. A college friend of his lived in Seattle and talked Thayer into visiting town to meet a woman he knew. Thayer and Boyka Dincov met in October 1981 and were married the next year. Boyka moved to Maine with Thayer, but she became homesick for the Pacific Northwest and asked Thayer if he’d consider moving to Seattle.
“It doesn’t matter where I live,” Boyka recalls Thayer answering. “I live in my head.”
The couple moved to Seattle in 1984 and settled on Capitol Hill, where Thayer continued writing. He regularly attended annual reunions of Company D and served as the unit’s historian.
Eventually, Thayer met August Wilson, and the two became friends. They were such a common feature of 15th Avenue East that a passerby once called them and their friends the “Algonquin Club of 15th Avenue,” a reference to the Algonquin Round Table of 1920s New York City.
At the time of his death, Thayer was working on a biography of a 19th-century circus manager.
His burial is planned for next month at the Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent.
It’s a coincidence that at the time of Thayer’s death, the city of Seattle was putting the finishing touches on its draft pedestrian master plan. The plan is part of Mayor Greg Nickels’ plan to turn Seattle into the United States’ most walkable city. Its primary goal is to increase pedestrian safety. Seattle averages 485 auto-pedestrian collisions a year, nine of them fatalities, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation. The plan is expected to be up for City Council approval sometime in September.
As someone who walks three miles or more a day around Capitol Hill, I’m sympathetic to the safety goal. Hardly a day goes by when I am not almost run down by a car, usually at a so-called unmarked crosswalk (intersection to the rest of us), where drivers routinely refuse to obey state law requiring motorists to treat such an intersection the same as a marked crosswalk – meaning they have to stop for pedestrians.
The fact that one elderly driver, who perhaps shouldn’t have been driving at all, failed to stop for a pedestrian resulted in Thayer’s death. I’d prefer not to meet the same fate.
Philip Dawdy is a former staff writer at the Seattle Weekly and has won dozens of local, regional and national journalism awards for his reporting. He also writes the popular mental health blog Furious Seasons.