Published 12:38 pm Saturday, April 5, 2014

I met Andy Thomsen in August of 1989. I was starting my freshman year of college and had just moved into my dorm room at Southern Illinois. Andy, along with my new roommate, Lon, were returning sophomores, and they didn’t have to show up for a couple days until after my freshman orientation was complete.

The day Lon moved in, after initially recovering from the shock of what the next year likely had in store for him, he began to tell me about some of the people who would be living on our floor in the dorm. He first told me about Andy, who would be living across the hall. Lon said he was a fun guy who I’d probably really get along with.

Lon was right.

Andy was a tall, good-looking guy who was obviously an athlete of some sort. He was friendly in an easygoing sort of way. He was very comfortable in his own skin, and exuded the confidence of a guy who had already spent a year on campus and knew exactly what was in store. He fit every description of “cool” you could imagine. He was also hysterically funny and could be a total clown. I couldn’t help but look up to him right away.

Andy, as it turned out, had been a star football player in high school, but had turned down a number of athletic scholarships to pursue his true passion, flying. Already with a number of solo flight hours under his belt, Andy had chosen SIU over a number of other schools because of its renowned aviation program. There was no doubt in my mind, or that of anyone else who knew him, that Andy would soon be flying the friendly skies.

Andy was also frustratingly responsible. He rarely skipped class, was never behind on his work, yet was always there on our regular Friday and Saturday outings (as well as the ones on Tuesdays and Thursdays.). The amount of fun we had on those nights out was indescribable and should probably remain so. But while the rest of us always seemed to have a project we were behind on or a test we should have been studying for instead of carousing until all hours, Andy was always good to go because he had handled his studies on time. I should have followed his example.

But I didn’t, so in the spring when Andy finished what would be his second of four years at SIU, I finished what would be both my first and last. We moved out of the dorms, Andy because he wanted to and me because the university said I had to. He registered for classes and rented a house with Lon for the following year. I bought a motorcycle and moved into an apartment across town. Andy continued going to most of his classes and was on his way to earning a degree. I worked just enough to earn gas money for my motorcycle and for some of my bills. He would become frustrated with me because he knew I was capable of doing more, and because he thought I wasn’t listening to his advice. But I was, because to me his was one of the only opinions that mattered. Andy was the big brother I never had, and was one of the best friends I ever did.

By the summer of 1994, Andy, along with most of our other friends, had graduated from college and had moved back in his hometown of Normal, Illinois. He was rooming with Lon again and working as a corporate pilot, trying to rack up enough flight hours to qualify for his dream job with United Airlines. I was living and working in Virginia by then, but free to come and go as I pleased. So when a two-minute phone call one night turned into an invitation to go spend the summer with my friends, I packed my bags and was on the first flight to Illinois I could find.

We all picked up right where we had left off, as good friends usually do. We got together as often as we could, but Andy would often go home earlier than the rest of us. He said it was because he had to get up for work, but I sensed there was more to it than that. On the last weekend of my extended visit, we took a road trip to visit friends in Chicago. Andy spent much of the time sleeping. We gave him a hard time, chiding him for being so lazy on my last weekend in town. Shortly after I boarded the plane for my flight home, Andy went to the doctor, convinced he had come down with the flu.

When I learned that Andy had instead been diagnosed with leukemia, all I could do was sit on the ground and cry.

Nobody should get cancer when they are only 24 years old, but if anyone was going to beat it, I was convinced it would be Andy. He immediately began aggressive treatments, and by the beginning of 1995 his doctors declared him to be in remission. They told him that if he stayed cancer free for 12 months he’d likely be home free.

The cancer came back after 11.

I made two trips to Illinois that winter; one in February of 1996 to tell him I loved him, the other the following month to say goodbye.

Not many days go by that I don’t think about Andy. I think about him when I hear certain songs, and I always think about him when I fly. And when I stop and give thanks for all the blessings in my life, I hope that he somehow knows I still count him as one of the greatest among them.

I miss you, my friend, and I still look up to you to this very day.

Tony Clark is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is