Pete Thielen—John Wayne of the Soul
By Ed Chasteen
Pete Thielen hasn’t walked in years. He can’t hold a pen to write. He can’t talk. He sees and hears everything. His mind is quick and agile. The way his body used to be.
He had to be here tonight. His wife and son-in-law got him ready. He doesn’t get out much anymore. He wants to. His body won’t cooperate. He watches movies on the big screen TV they bought for him. John Wayne is his favorite.
More than 150 miles each way they had to come. They unloaded his chair in the parking lot and brought him inside. His teammates of 50 years ago surrounded him. He was our center on the 1953 football team that went undefeated and won the championship of Texas. Tonight he is again our center. We have followed the progress of his disease as it steals his life. We have been awed with his fierce defiance wedded to a radiance that comes from within and somehow is made known to all who come into his presence.
I do not know the medical term to describe the genetic disorder that takes him in stages from us. Even in high school its presence was known to us. Its insidious and persistent progression has proved unstoppable.
All of us who gather tonight to remember what we did when we were young have in the years since fought personal battles. The ravages of age have paid their usual visits. There were 27 of us back then when we were the toast of Texas. Three have died. One is too sick to come. One has been a recluse for years. The other 22 are here. All wanting to see Pete.
Even if I knew the name of Pete’s time-release assassin, I could not bring myself to speak it or to write it. To call the name of something implies some degree of acceptance or familiarity. I will not grant Pete’s adversary that status. It is a cold, impersonal and malevolent presence that robs Pete in silence of one capacity after another. More than half a century at work on his body, this monster has reduced Pete to physical immobility and an undignified dependence on others.
It is a law of physics that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. The spiritual corollary of that law I see in what Pete’s physical condition has done to his soul. As Pete has wasted physically away, his soul has burst all human bounds. People are drawn to him. He can neither speak nor write. But being in his presence is not depressing. He has not grown bitter. He loves. And is loved. Physical invalidity has not made Pete a social or spiritual invalid. He is welcome company.
Pete Thielen is living proof that life is more than we know on ordinary days in ordinary bodies. Together we were champions of Texas years ago. Pete’s championship season has continued over all this time. He leads us by example as we all walk through the valley of the shadow.
Our championship season was but prelude to Pete’s championship soul. Memories of our gridiron feats prepared us for the battles that eventually come to each of us. To have Pete at the center of our memories gives a grace to our lives greater than all our fears.
We were a bunch of scrawny over achievers back then. We’re not so scrawny now. But with Pete to inspire us, over achievement is the order of the day.