“Now, I surf everyday — no matter what.”
… and that’s straight from the doctor’s mouth. Dr. Brian Thornton isn’t the doctor you may be imagining with a white lab coat, a BMW and some of the worst handwriting in the modern world. Instead, he is a doctor of journalism. But, to be perfectly honest, I think he has way more experience in the water. He grew up on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, and for reasons involving his career as a journalist, has found himself in our humble surf community around 2007.
“I actually grew up on East Oahu because my dad, an Air Force fighter pilot, moved our family there when I was about 10,” Dr. Thornton said. “He retired there and bought a house near Niu Valley. I was lucky enough to start surfing on Oahu’s south shore, in places such as Diamond Head, Waikiki and Ala Moana.”
Dr. Thornton got his first bit of surfing in when his neighbor, a Hawaiian firefighter, was kind enough to take him surfing with his kids. “Since he worked 24 hours on and 48 hours off, he had more time to take all the kids surfing. I have been surfing about 50 years now.”
Dr. Thornton would go on to graduate from the University of Hawaii, and lived in Honolulu, where he was a reporter, until he was in his mid-30s. Then, he moved to Maui and worked for the Maui News for four years before moving to the mainland to earn a Ph.D at the University of Utah.
“I have been teaching journalism for 22 years now, since earning my Ph.D, and I moved to Jax in 2007 from Illinois where I was a professor for eight years,” he said. “I moved to Florida to specifically be able to surf again. While I was at Northern Illinois University, I used to save up my vacation and go back home to Hawaii to surf.”
While that worked for awhile, surfing only once a year for a month in-between semesters wasn’t enough to satiate Dr. Thornton’s surfing fix. “I was offered a job at UNF and decided that while it was not Hawaii, it was better than Illinois. I could surf every day, and I decided to do that.”
I met Dr. Thornton two years ago in my second semester at UNF. He taught two of my courses as a communication major. I saw him maybe twice at the poles (his favorite local surf spot) when I was eager enough to wake up before noon.
During class, he had this peculiar habit of barely laughing at his jokes, then he would stop abruptly, and carry on to whatever topic he was discussing, and he wore a suit every day.
I got the impression he had done this so many times that his pretend laugh was just to motivate us (the students) to pay attention. I later learned exactly why he laughed that way … and now, so will you.
“They said it was supposed to kill me,” he said, then does that pretend laugh.
Dr. Thornton was told he had a benign brain tumor. It wasn’t cancerous, but it was growing — pressing against his eyes and his pituitary gland. He began having uncontrollable laughter, uncontrollable crying, and he was always, always cold.
“If you saw me in the water those days, I was the guy in a full suit in the middle of the summer.”
I thought he was kidding, but he literally, and physically, wore a full suit during the summer.
At the time, his doctors recommended two very different forms of treatment. Dr. Thornton said that one required going up through the nose and would entail basically digging the tumor out. “It was really scary,” he said after closing with that iconic, short burst of laughter. “But, there was one doctor, Dr. Gandhi who suggested not doing that operation, and instead doing chemotherapy. So, they blasted me with the chemotherapy.”
Now, as this suspenseful moment hangs in our heads, and we begin to wander through different scenarios, I would like to remind you that I just interviewed the good doctor. So, he’s still alive — and when it comes to the whereabouts of the tumor, it’s still there. But it’s so small now that it doesn’t have any power.
Dr. Thornton has decided to surf every single day ever since his complication was uncomplicated. He decided to do what he loves.
“When the brain tumor made me sick, I made a promise that once I got better, I would seize the day — and be sure to surf every day,” he said. “I have tried to do that pretty faithfully since 2007. I am almost always there at first light. When it is small, I paddle out, try to catch one wave, and then go home. When it is real choppy, same thing. When it is good, I will surf about two or three hours. I love it.”
To be completely honest, he’d rather be in Hawaii (duh), but he has certainly fallen in love with the First Coast as well.
“I miss Hawaii a lot. But it is expensive. I chose Jacksonville instead because of my love of the ocean,” Dr. Thornton told me. “It is a more affordable place than Hawaii that still lets me live near the ocean. I live in Atlantic Beach about a third of a mile from the beach.”
Despite the scare, Dr. Thornton remains dedicated to his goal, and now lives life to the fullest each day. Surfing and spending time in the ocean has long been a form of healing, and for Dr. Thornton, this is no different. The key? Having fun and not letting it become too serious.
“The most important thing about surfing for me is having fun. I was lucky enough to be able to interview the great Hawaiian surfer Rabbit Kekai once. He said the surfer who is having the most fun is the best surfer. I try to live by that motto.”