Aug 13 2009

A Contrast of Two Lives

Category: characteramuzikman @ 10:10 pm

Wednesday July 26, 2009: Ed Thomas, football coach of Aplington-Parkersburg High School in Parkersburg, Iowa, is shot and killed by a mentally disturbed former student.

Thursday, June 27, 2009: Pop star Michael Jackson dies of an apparent cardiac arrest, possibly brought on by a drug overdose.

Could there be two lives more unalike, more disassociated, and more stark in contrast.  And yet, they were brought together for at least a moment, by a shared sordid and sensational means of death and accompanying national headline.

The death of Coach Thomas has already been forgotten by most. His death would have been anonymous had it not been for the headline-grabbing manner in which he was killed.  I also happen to believe the story would have rekindled gun-control debate in the press for a longer period of time had Michael Jackson’s death not pushed it from the front page the following day.

The reason everyone knows about the death of Michael Jackson is obvious – he was arguably one of the most famous celebrities on the planet.  The manner in which he died is yet to be determined, though there is already sinister speculation and allegations of a drug overdose.  And with celebrities, especially this one, there will always be reasons their death remains in the news long after they are laid to rest.

Much can be said about the lives of these two men.  Both were very influential within their sphere of influence, one in a town of 1,900 people, one on a world stage.  Both deaths had a profound impact on those who knew them.  Both met with what we would all agree is an untimely death.  Both apparently died at the hands of another, though the full truth about Michael Jackson may never really be known. But there are some very important differences to note and as I do so I intend no disrespect to the memory of either man.

While Michael Jackson enjoyed an amazing level of popularity and success as an artist that few ever obtain, he paid dearly for his celebrity in private life.  With great fame and fortune come equally great pressures as ones personal life is exposed in the public spotlight. Most celebrities struggle constantly with keeping a degree of privacy and normalcy in their lives.  Rumors of personal eccentricities from quirky to criminal followed Michael everywhere.  Serious charges of pedophilia left him forever tainted in the public eye.  And whether or not Michael was a pedophile his penchant for surrounding himself with young boys would hardly be considered normal.  Michael was also obviously uncomfortable in his own skin.  Repeated plastic surgeries throughout his life are not symptomatic of someone who has a healthy self-image.

We mourn the loss of Michael Jackson largely because of nostalgia.  His music was so popular and inextricably linked to a season of our lives.  When the music maker dies it also somehow brings an end to that part of our lives associated with that music.  When I was a young boy I remember crying very hard upon hearing a news broadcast announcing the death of Walt Disney.  I had never met the man, but I had certainly been to Disneyland and understood all things Disney would never be quite the same again.

We mourn the loss of a great artist.  We mourn also the passing of that season in our own lives.  We are sad we’ll never hear or see this great talent again. But for the most part, much like it was for me with Walt Disney, we mourn the memory, we do not mourn the loss of Michael Jackson, the man.  A man whose life was sadly warped and twisted by forces beyond the control of the tender, gentle soul he seemed to be.

In stark contrast is the life of Coach Ed Thomas. No one achieves fame or fortune by being a high school football coach in a very small Iowa town.  Apparently he was a very successful coach (including 2 state titles and 4 team alums who are now in the NFL) and as such received more lucrative and higher-profile college coaching offers but turned them all down.  I think it is safe to say he had other priorities that were entirely unrelated to fame or fortune. A year earlier when a tornado ripped through the middle of their small town it was Coach Thomas who stood as a pillar of strength, galvanizing their community to rebuild as they buried their dead.  Such deeds never seem to garner great publicity but it is clear what this man meant to his community.  Phrases like “he was the rock this community was built on” and descriptions such as “our icon” give testimony about the sort of man that was Ed Thomas. (click here to read more about the life and death of Coach Ed Thomas)

2,500 people attended the funeral of Coach Thomas.  That is 131% of Parkersburg’s population.  (If the same percentage of L.A.’s population had come to Michael Jackson’s funeral the attendance would have been almost 13 million)

Two lives entirely unrelated but for their deaths.  Two lives about as different as two lives can be.  But what is the significant difference to me?  i think I can best sum it up this way:

I might point to Michael Jackson and tell my son, “When you grow up I want you to sing like he did.”


I will point to Ed Thomas and tell my son, “When you grow up, I want you to be the kind of man he was.”

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