Peter Thonis was my boss for 12 years, retiring 10 years ago. Late last week, a family friend called with the news that Peter had died.
As his son Chris posted on Facebook, Peter’s doctors told him he had 3 months to live, given his Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Peter’s reaction? “You can’t base this stuff off of years-old data. And, as you know, I’m not the norm.”
That was 17 months ago. Peter was not the norm; he was transcendent.
Here are 3 scenes of what it was like to work with Peter Thonis:
I try to call Peter on an important matter, and he answers with a whisper. “I can’t talk now,” he says. “I’m in a doctor’s office.”
I say, “OK, I understand…”
He doesn’t seem to hear me, though, because he goes on to explain that he was about to undergo walk-in surgery to repair a stomach scar covering stitches that had never healed properly.
“But it’s something I’d rather not talk about,” he says.
“OK,” I repeat. “I get it. We’ll talk some other time.”
Instead of silence, I hear Peter’s dramatic whisper on the other end of the line.
“It was a knife wound,” he says conspiratorially. “It was from a fight when I was young.”
I walk into Peter’s office and say, “I need to leave work early today. My mother-in-law is coming for dinner.”
Peter: “I know what that’s like. Go! GO NOW!”
I head toward the door.
“Wait!” he calls out, “Unless you want me to think of something for you to do right now, so you have to work late tonight.”
Peter arrives at my office door at 8 a.m. to say good morning. We were working in an office tower at 1095 Ave. of the Americas, the same building where my Dad used to work. He’s completely out of breath.
“I’m going hiking with my brother this week in the White Mountains. I’m walking up the 32 flights in the morning to get used to climbing again.”
Peter spies an unopened bottle on my desk. “Could I trouble you for some soda?” he asks.
“Of course,” I quickly untwist the top and hand it to him.
“I really hate to do this,” he says, taking a swig and immediately regaining his wind.
“Wait!” He waves the plastic bottle in front of him. “Is this diet Coke?”
“G ood! “ he exclaims, hurrying off.
30 minutes later, I get a phone call from Peter.
“Was there an 8:30 meeting?” he asks.
“No, you canceled that last week.”
“Good, because I was on the 8:30 call, and no one was there.”
These scenes do not portray Peter’s excellence in actually doing his job.
This is a photo of him with our friend and co-worker Valerie Vedda. The occasion was when Peter received the Communicator of the Year Award from IABC-NJ (International Association of Business Communicators) in late 2010. Peter’s formal obituary outlines his many other career accomplishments, but here’s one real-life example of his work ethic:
On Veterans’ Day weekend 22 years ago, I was mildly annoyed during my day off to interrupt my leaf raking at my suburban home to return a message from Christine Nuzum of Dow Jones. It was about possible phone service problems. I logged in to work and discovered it was in light of the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Queens. In the short time it took me to get back to Christine, I also discovered that she had reached out to Peter simultaneously, and he had already responded.
Peter had been hiking on a mountaintop in southern New Hampshire. The wind-chill factor approached minus 20 degrees, but he had stripped away three layers of protective clothing to get to his pager, find his cell phone, and dial her back without his gloves on.
When it came to Public Relations, he single-handedly prevented multiple media disasters over the years.
Here are 5 representative, if unorthodox, PR lessons I learned from Peter Thonis:
- Regarding crisis communications, the most effective operating philosophy can be summarized in one phrase: “Go ugly early.”
- Regarding leaks to the media, the advice is this: “A leak isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If it isn’t material, it may be just interesting.”
- “There’s a thin line between being a ‘thought leader’ and becoming a ‘poster boy.’”
- “You can’t say the word ‘jerk’ to the Daily News and not expect to be quoted.”
- Regarding a fallback PR position on just about anything… When in doubt, your standby sound bite should always be, “Bring it on.”
Peter was also able to make tough decisions with ridiculous ease. He once described this side of his management style. He said, “You know, Bob, you only have to shoot one person, and it will never happen again.”
By far, his best quote about PR came in the middle of an otherwise meandering, boring meeting. Out of nowhere, he suddenly said this:
“Our goal shouldn’t be to find a better way to tell the same story. Our goal should be to find a better story to tell.”
As for the person, here are 10 facts about Peter (never call him “Pete”) Thonis:
- He couldn’t say the word “surreptitious”
- His favorite finger food at a reception was pigs in a blanket
- At one time in his life, he was recruited by the CIA
- He allegedly had the ability to stuff an entire orange in his mouth
- He once sat at the bar at Kennedy’s (now closed) on West 57th Street and watched an entire baseball game (Peter was a huge sports fan) with Bill Murray — but only because he was clever enough not to acknowledge who Bill Murray was
- He had a pathological hatred for the New England clam chowder as served in the Verizon Center cafeteria, fondly recalling how his Mom made chowder from fresh ingredients
- He once made a map for my family to follow that highlighted a week’s worth of activities on Cape Cod, adding the warning: “Avoid Hyannis”
- He could, and would, show you how to use a wristwatch as a compass
- He was an expert limerick writer
- Peter and I both, unbeknownst to each other at the time, took violin lessons in late middle age
In truth, that last point is one of the only things we had in common.
I could never match Peter’s strength or confidence… or empathy. I recall his big heart. I recall his comforting embrace of a tearful co-worker as we all stood in stunned silence from our panoramic 32nd-floor view of the burning World Trade Center towers on 9/11.
I recall his support at the funeral home in Totowa, NJ, and his patience and kindness to my family after my Dad died. Peter revealed that he was filled with anger that his own father had passed away in his 50s.
I also recall only one day in our 12 years together that he did not show up where I expected him. When I asked Valerie about it that day, thinking he was perhaps unreachable because he had lost his 7th… or 8th… or 9th Blackberry device, she confided that Peter had taken off in his car for New Hampshire in the pre-dawn hours to attend to a health emergency involving his best friend.
By coincidence, I had lunch with Valerie and her husband earlier this month in New York City. She spoke fondly of visiting post-retirement Peter at his mountainside home (that, when described, seemed akin to the setting of “The Shining”).
Excuse all the movie references, but Peter was a bit of a film buff. I’ve had other bosses who loved movies… notably, earlier in my career, Tony Pappas.
I began writing this on November 10th, the 5th anniversary of Tony’s death. He was another larger-than-life boss who led media relations for New York Telephone (later NYNEX). I’ve likened Tony to Peter O’Toole’s swashbuckling character in the 1982 movie “My Favorite Year.”
I never thought I’d work for anyone like Tony again. Until I met Peter Thonis.
Both, foremost, shared a love of exquisite writing.
Both had great, though differing, tastes in movies. Tony liked foreign films and “The Godfather” franchise. Peter was more of a fan of “Igby Goes Down”-type films and had an irrational love of Godzilla movies.
One of Peter’s favorite movie scenes was from 1997’s “As Good As It Gets.” It’s when Jack Nicholson compliments Helen Hunt by saying, “You make me want to be a better man.”
That statement, that scene, resonated with Peter, who always strove to be better.
I’ve thought of this often these past few days. It’s inspiring.
I’ve also thought of a post-credit scene to give these words a fitting ending:
In 2012, Peter sent everyone on his Christmas list, including his Mom, packages from Wine Country with a note, “Enjoy every moment of the holidays.” But someone hacked into the order and changed the message to “Enjoy every f**k’n moment!”
Such simple, profound advice, no matter how it’s phrased. Who knows what the future holds for any of us?
I only know what Peter Thonis, the legend, would have to say about that:
Bring it on.