Saturday, October 1, 2016

On Your 91st, Dad.

Today would have been my father’s 91st birthday. 

George L. Thurston was an investigative journalist and a pioneer in broadcast journalism in Florida. 

He was the first reporter in Florida to cover the Florida Legislature full time, year-round. He also frequently covered the Democratic and Republican national conventions back in the day. If he were here today, he would be horrified by our state and national government and deeply disturbed by the presidential campaign. And really, who the hell could blame him? 

To quote some of my brother Lee’s recent Facebook post, my dad often shared stories about truth and justice, or the lack thereof. Dad spent many days and nights following leads and paper trails of corruption in law enforcement, the judicial system, and in politics. 

He was a brilliant journalist who was unapologetic when his stories exposed systems, businesses and people to be unjust, unfair and/or untrue. In the '70s, he unearthed a racist speech by Judge G. Harrold Carswell. My father's story eventually cost Carswell his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The investigative work my father did before his death in 2001 helped lead to the conviction in 2003 of Dr. William Sybers, the former medical examiner for the 14th Judicial Circuit, for murdering his wife, Kay.

He followed trail after trail of corruption in Calhoun County, including the suspicious deaths of the Burke brothers, who allegedly just laid down in the road in the middle of the night and died. He exposed another murder cover-up in which a man allegedly committed suicide by shooting himself in the brain and then shooting himself again. An independent autopsy showed the first bullet killed him. 

Dad also exposed the influence of money in politics in a story -- “Florida’s Shadow Government” -- published in the Floridian magazine in 1970.

Those were the kinds of stories that kept my father up at night. 

He was notorious in the halls of Florida’s Capitol. He frequently pushed his camera cart around, pulling right up to gaggles of lawmakers quietly discussing some piece of legislation. He'd stick his microphone in their faces and whip out his laminated card he kept in his wallet that explained Florida’s Sunshine Laws.

He was known as a prankster at the Capitol, too. He once threw a string of firecrackers into his intern's bathroom stall as the man was doing his business!

While covering a story about city government, Dad’s editor told him to back off, that he was making the city commission look bad, to which my dad replied, "The commission is doing a great job of that; I'm just reporting the facts."

George was a great man, wildly intelligent, incredibly funny, a first-rate investigator and an exceptional writer. 

And although it wasn't always obvious, he was a great father, too. Patient, kind, compassionate, wise, and so accepting.

My teenage years all but destroyed our relationship. In my early 20s, my father stumbled across an essay I had written about our troubles and how I wished for a stronger bond. He read it all and wrote responses to all the things I'd questioned and wondered about. That was the start of a beautiful friendship. 

Our new relationship was rooted in honesty, mutual respect, deep admiration, quirky humor, our shared love of journalism and writing, and a willingness to let go of past transgressions and move ahead to savor the years we had left as father and daughter. 

As it turned out, we had 12 more years. I had the privilege of caring for him at home in his final days, and to hold his hand as he took his last breath. 

I miss my father. Frankly, I miss both my parents. The hole is always there now, and on some days, like today -- what would have been my dad's 91st birthday -- the void is intense. 

Today, like most days lately, I’ll reminisce about Dad and Mom and try to honor their lives by working harder to be the person they raised me to be. 

Thanks, Pops, for being the father and the man that you were. 

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