This is a story that began more than 30 years ago. It ended on June 27 when Homer Price Thurman died of probable arterial cardio-vascular disease in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was 72.
But filling in the dots in the volatile life of a multi-talented but troubled man that was characterized as sad and complicated by all who knew him will take more than a few paragraphs.
Thurman was a three-sport star at Bloom Township High School in Chicago Heights in the late 1950s. He once had a tryout with the Harlem Globetrotters. He was an All-Stater in football and basketball and a state champion in track and field. On Nov. 3, he will be inducted into the Illinois High School Basketball Hall of Fame and Museum in Pinckneyville.
How good was he? Those who saw him compete, including former teammate Jerry Colangelo, now director of USA Basketball, insists he should be mentioned in the same discussion with Lou Boudreau, Dike Eddleman, Otto Graham, Ted Kluszewski, Mike Conley, LaMarr Thomas, Quinn Buckner, Tai Streets and his teammate at Bloom, Leroy Jackson.
Until his death, however, Thurmans whereabouts were unknown to members of his family and friends. Alan Macey, a longtime sports reporter in Chicago Heights, spent more than 30 years trying to find Thurman without success. He even put an FBI agent on Thurmans trail but he kept running into one dead end after another. Close friend and classmate Homer Dillard said Thurman hadnt been seen since 1974.
The truth is Thurmans body wouldnt have been claimed except Ken Nelson, who befriended Thurman when he landed in Hawaii in the late 1970s, recalled that Thurman once mentioned he had played with the Harlem Globetrotters. It spurred an online search in which Nelson discovered stories about Thurmans Chicago background.
The Honolulu City and County medical examiner found information in Thurmans wallet and was able to contact a son, Tom Stone, a professional photographer in San Francisco, California. Stone said his father would be cremated.
Stone and his mother, Catherine Stone, who also lives in the San Francisco area, didnt have much of a relationship with Thurman. Catherine, a California girl who met Thurman at a restaurant in Sausalito that was owned by the Kingston Trio of folk music fame, said she was with Homer for only four years. A victim of physical abuse, she fled with her son, who was born in a Pullman compartment on a trail traveling between Mexico City and Oaxaca, Mexico.
I talked to my father a few months before he died, Tom Stone said. I didnt have much of a relationship with him. It never was good until the end. Last year, I was interacting with him, as good as it has ever been. We talked on the telephone now and again.
Part of our issue was he was very secretive. We dont know any of his family. We have pictures of him in his basketball days. We knew he was fairly successful in sports in his early days. But we didnt know he was one of the great all-around athletes in Illinois history.
Stone was only two years old when his parents broke up. He was home-schooled by his mother, who encouraged her son to reach his full potential in high school by studying such creative pursuits as art, painting and music. At Harvard, he majored in computer science and also took courses in creative writing and film.
Today, the 41-year-old Stone is an accomplished humanitarian photographer with a gallery in San Francisco. His work depicts the discrepancy between the American dream and the American reality. He is most widely known for his documentary photography of outsider, displaced and homeless people in California.
Even though they never married, Catherine Stone said she cried when she learned of Homers death. When you love someone, you always love them, she said.
It was a very difficult relationship. I always tried to keep in touch. When we visited him in Honolulu, he wouldnt see us. He was very close-mouthed about his past and his family. I wanted to meet his father so Tom would have a root. There was a desire to reach out but he didnt want to do that.
There were things in his life that he felt bad about. He always said he was Homer Thurman but he used the name Tony Washington, his cousins name, for legal reasons. I always understood he was in trouble with the law.
The fact that he was such a sterling athlete speaks to some level of self-control and discipline. But emotionally, he couldnt control himself. He had rage inside of him. I think that was his Achilles heel. It prevented him from going forward.
In the last few years, however, it sounds as if he had made peace with himself. He wasnt angry anymore. He wanted to remake himself in many ways. He was gentle and kind. He had great faith.
Added Tom: He had a robust voice, a soft rumbling laugh and liked nothing better than a good conversation. He spent a very long time wrestling with his past. But he really seemed to find a degree of peace and calm and contentment in the last few months.
That was the man than Ken Nelson knew. Everyone knew him as Jah. He had a strong intellectual curiosity with an emphasis on science, particularly physics and the brain. He even had a theory of human behavior that he tenaciously pursued through reading. People who interacted with him said: The guy is very bright. He inevitably left you wondering: What screwed up this guy that his obvious intelligence veered so off-course?
There were other issues. Thurman delivered newspapers. He didnt have any health insurance. He was evicted from his YMCA room, his last known residence. His phone number always responded with the same message: The subscribers mailbox is full. He was bothered by injuries sustained in a hit-and-run accident. Never a braggart, he never told anyone about his athletic accomplishments as a teenager.
He never complained, bemoaned his lot in life or asked anyone for anything for free, Nelson said. He would quickly pay back any small loan and would himself, despite meager earnings, assist people he met who were even worse off. But despite our sometimes heating, sometimes informative, always interesting and challenging but frequently frustrating discussions, he remained reclusive, private and unknown. I knew nothing about his background before I met him. His sports background never was a feature of our conversations.
Born in Ittabena, Mississippi, on Nov. 18, 1939, Thurman moved to Chicago Heights with his family. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder was an All-State end on Blooms unbeaten 1957 football team. In basketball, he scored 1,619 points in four years, averaged 17.6 points per game and was a two-time All-Stater. In track and field, he won the state high jump and participated on two winning relays.
Colangelo, who teamed with Thurman on Blooms highly rated 22-2 team in 1957 that lost to Elgin 53-52 in the supersectional, recalled organizing a summer tournament in Chicago Heights.
I had the best players in the Midwest playing in the event, Colangelo said. I was looking for Homer Thurman. I found him in jail. He looked scruffy and hadnt touched a basketball in a long time.
Well, he ate a hamburger and some French fries and stepped on the court like he never missed a beat. He was the MVP of the tournament. He was an amazing story. He disappeared right after that. He is a tragic story, a great talent who went to waste.
By all accounts, Thurmans outlook on life changed in 1959, when his mother died. His father, a preacher, left the family. She scrubbed floors. According to Catherine Stone, she was violent with Homer. According to Homer Dillard, he was a high-strung, temperamental individual who was never able to relax.
When his mother died, something died inside him, Dillard said. So many people expected him to do so much. They said he would be the next Oscar Robertson. But he didnt want to work as hard.
The sad part is he was imprinted at an early age in a way that he could never get past, Catherine Stone said.
Thurman was recruited by Iowa but left after a semester and landed at Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Nebraska. He was a black star in a white community. In 1962, he married Janet Bartling, the daughter of a local newspaper publisher. They were married in Chicago, had two children, Tony and Tammi, then were divorced in 1965. Bartling returned to Fremont, where she resides today.
In the early 1970s, after Catherine Stone, fearing for her safety, broke off her relationship with Thurman and fled with her son, sleeping in bushes in wealthy Los Angeles neighborhoods for a time, she eventually found solace after joining Source Family, a spiritual commune in the Hollywood Hills that was founded by Father Yod. He also was the lead singer of the communes psychedelic rock band Ya Ho Wa 13. Curiously, Thurman played guitar in the band and was pictured on the cover of one of the groups albums.
When I joined the spiritual family, I realized (Yod) was a truth seeker and love never dies. I found truth in the family and learned how to live my life in a positive way. It gave me what I needed to bring up my son, Catherine Stone said.
She called Homer and invited him to join them in Hawaii. He agreed. It is a saga of effort and desire to change. He wanted to remake himself in many ways. The sad part is he seemed to be imprinted at an early age. He stayed with us for only a brief time, she said.
Two weeks ago, Catherine Stone contacted Janet Bartling in Fremont, Nebraska. They talked for a long while. Both of Bartlings children have graduated from college, are married and have children of their own.
We agreed it was tragic that so much talent and potential was lost and that Homer did not know any of his children, Catherine said.