A Hays organization that helps those through grief will launch a planned lecture series in November named in honor of one of its early supporters and will feature a Hays native and mental heath advocate as its first speaker.
The Center for Life Experiences announced the John C. Thorns Jr. Memorial Lecture Series: Finding Healing and Hope in Western Kansas at a news conference Tuesday at The Press, 230 E. Eighth, that included some of Thorns’ colleagues and family, as well as representatives of sponsoring organizations.
Thorns, a former chairman of the Fort Hays State University Department of Art and Design, was a charter board member for CFLE when it began as an outreach ministry of the First Presbyterian Church in 2001. He died in 2014.
The inaugural speaker, David Schramm, survived a suicide attempt and talks about facing depression and living life fully. Schramm is a faculty member of Stanford University in California. He is a graduate and former faculty member at Thomas More Prep-Marian High School and was a friend of Thorns.
Thorns was no stranger to hardship himself, those gathered for the informal announcement said. Early in his marriage, his wife, Catherine, died by suicide, and one of their daughters, Jennifer, later died in a traffic crash.
More than 40 years after his wife’s death, he was one of the founding members of Healing After Loss of Suicide, a support group formed under CFLE.
“John was so open to sharing his own personal story to so many people that were going through similar things,” said Dawne Leiker, chairwoman of the CFLE board.
Thorns told Leiker his story in 2011, when she was a reporter working on a story about suicide for The Hays Daily News.
“I sat down with him at his kitchen table, and I didn’t even know what questions to ask him. He just said, ‘Every day I cry.’
“He was good at telling his story,” Leiker said.
Many at the table Tuesday said Thorns was an inspiration, something they hope the the lecture series will be able to carry on.
“He did have grief and he did shed tears, but he was an amazing example of looking for and seeking and finding healing and hope,” said CFLE executive director Ann Leiker.
Carmen Gerber, founder of the HALOS support group, called Thorns the “rock of the group” that many looked to for inspiration.
“He was the oldest one in that support group," she said. "I know that when he lost his wife 50-plus years ago, they didn’t talk about suicide back then. The support group gave him that opportunity to share his story and talk to others in that support group that had a loss to suicide."
When he spoke, it was much like his artwork, drawing people in, she said.
“That’s what he did for all of us in that group," Gerber said. "He drew you in when he spoke, and he just really had valuable lessons that he taught to all of us."
Longtime friend Mark Hantla, who worked with Thorns as curator of the Hays Medical Center art collection, said the lecture is a fitting tribute.
“There was so much about John that people should fashion their lives around the ideals, the things that are really important in life," Hantla said. "People, to John, was paramount — and those relationships. If you needed him, it was strange, but a lot of time he just popped up and he was there.”
Hantla said when people were frustrated or at their wits’ end, Thorns was one who could “quiet those waters.”
At openings of his art shows, Hantla said, Thorns would often stand in a corner, and slowly, people would join him.
“He was like a magnet," he said. "He was a people magnet. He would draw them over and he would be talking to them.
“He loved people and he wanted to help. He was a fine example for all of us."
Thorns’ sister, Margaret Schmidt, and his niece, Margaret Anne Becker, both of Hays, were present at the announcement. Schmidt said she was happy the lecture series would help keep her brother’s memory alive.
“That’s something that’s kind of been shuffled to the background," she said. "This is going to be bringing it forward and keeping it every year. It is tremendous to me."
Ann Leiker said Schramm asked the lecture will take place on the FHSU campus to help reach young people who might especially need to hear his message. The FHSU National Alliance on Mental Illness on Campus and the Kelly Center are among the sponsors of the lecture, along with the Hays NAMI affiliate and High Plains Mental Health Center.
“We’re really excited to have Dr. Schramm speak on campus not only to our students but the community, as well,” said Madison Barrera, president of the FHSU NAMI affiliate.
“We do think that the more you talk about these topics, the less stigmatized they become," Barrera said. "Dr. Schramm does talk about substance abuse issues and depression, and these are things that I think really resonate with students on our campus.
“His story is really a special one because he’s a Hays native but also because it’s a real-life example of somebody who can go through these experiences and still have a very successful life."