My friend has just created a memorable moment for me during our phone conversation, but I didn’t tell him. He would have been embarrassed. They-the most intelligent person I have ever known-told me I had done something “brilliant”. I don’t remember what I did. It doesn’t matter. What mattered was that for the first time in my life, an authentic genius had called me brilliant.
I never asked They if he knew he was a genius; I suspected he did. He was always fixated on the next “what if,” the next “why not,” with hyper-technical schematics pinballing inside his head waiting to be unleashed via a torrent of detailed notes-some of which he shared with me. And now I am left to ponder the fact that he is gone, deeply grateful for having known him but wishing more people had.
Name of Fame
Genius in a vacuum is impressive. Genius with heart, courage, humor and character is impossible to forget. I met him through email in September 2016, when he inquired about the availability of an Inventors Digest issue from 1986. (Long gone). After a few emails and a phone conversation, it was a no-brainer that this brain had to be the subject of a story of this magazine. I wrote it for the December 2016 issue.
Originally, I thought the main “hook” for the story was how he walked into a Taney County, Missouri, courtroom in 2004 and changed his name from Andrew Wilson to They. “My intention was to just play a little bit,” he said in the 2016 story. “They do this; they are to blame for that.’ Somebody has to take the responsibility. ….
“Three days later after I had done this legally, I was looking at my homepage and saw the headline about my name change on CNN’s website. The AP picked up on it, and there it went ballistic. It was everywhere. ….Dozens of radio stations around the world called to do interviews, and the online forums were everywhere.” Many of these media outlets-If not all of them-missed the bigger story.
Chaos and courage
This particular little media outlet was always close to his heart, which is why he sought that 1986 issue in which he had been mentioned. “What you have brought back to my forefront is something I cannot put a price on, simply because of what it represents and what it’s going to represent,” he said. “Inventors Digest, back in the day, brought me a pulse that set my course for the rest of my life. It gave my work validity, which has always been the only important thing for me. “I’m revitalized one more time.”
His life was a series of revitalization, many of them painful. Maybe some other media might have mentioned his 14 patents-including ground-effects lightning underneath vehicles that has been popular since the late 1980s-but They’s story is one of relentless determination in the face of cruelty, isolation and major health challenges.
Because his father was a traveling minister, the family moved a lot. He said his father was bigoted and beat him often. He wasn’t close to his four older brothers. “I wasn’t part of anybody else’s world. … I had no supervision, no guidance” – which in retrospect he viewed as a blessing.
“So here’s this little scientific-minded kid, out exploring. When I was 10, 12 years old, I would go out hunting for two or three days at a time by myself. … I did all these things and satisfied my curiosity.
“That’s my toolbox I’ve brought to everything that gives me an understanding of the world around me. Everything mechanical, I instantly understand it.”
He had more than 30 surgeries. Several were associated with cancer; two years of chemotherapy and radiation led to heart problems that plagued him much of his adult life. He recalled 11 heart catheterizations, three heart stents, one aortic stent, and procedures involving his gall bladder, lymph nodes, feet, arms and legs.
While undergoing chemo, he put a tourniquet around his scalp to limit blood flow-figuring that because the chemicals were short-lived, restricting scalp exposure could help reduce hair loss. “I didn’t lose my hair, except where the tourniquet didn’t cover. I heard later that doing that and using icepacks and cooling has become a mainstay in chemo treatment. That was a proud moment.”
Ideas to the end
He never focused on his health problems until the end of his life-spoke of them like getting an oil change for the car. He had too many things to think about and do. His cyclone of recent ideas and comprehensive planning ranged from a Bluetooth monitor for infants to help eliminate Sudden Infant Death Syndrome; break-away clothing that would prevent people from being entangled in heavy machinery; and a fire-suppression apparatus.
His goal was not to get rich from these ideas, not even to patent them: “These things … can save lives and injury, and that’s my focus – not the corporations and the insurance companies, but the actual people on the ground who benefit from it.’
When he asked my opinion about the validity of his ideas, I was beyond flattered. He was so grateful for my input that he surprised me by mailing an art piece he created. He was a fine painter, jewelry maker, and taught himself how to play the piano. “I’ve had enough encounters in my life to have a total appreciation for every single day and every single moment that I have,’ he said in 2016. “I have been nearly dead or dead for three minutes at a time. If you’re able to walk away from that, you have a unique appreciation for this.”
He could not walk away from this last health challenge. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in mid-2021 and died in a Galveston, Texas, hospital on October 16. But even in his last email to me, he wrote: “My work has been pretty much on hold, but my exposure to this new medical entity has spawned a few ideas and inventions related to this field of interest … something to be expected. At least that program still functions:)”
The 3 happiest years
We’ve saved the happiest part of the story for last. Three years ago, They met Nancy Saint-Paul. She was immediately taken by his intelligence, kindness, talents and strength; she has many of the same attributes. After 57 years of mostly discovery and loneliness, the last three were his happiest.
When Nancy called to inform me of They’s death, her voice was steady and calm. She even laughed a couple times. Just as her husband would have, it was she who spent more time comforting me than the other way around. She sent me the last photo taken of They, a few days before he died. He was lying in bed tapping on his phone, his cat Molly by his side.
“Full name: Molly Gras,” Nancy wrote. “He adopted a fat cat during Mardi Gras (another veiled joke; please cheer up).”
A few days later, she added a note about his end-of-life arrangements. “His first choice was taxidermy and when I asked if he wanted me to place him in the gazebo, he said ‘What? I can’t come inside? You’re locking me out?’ His second choice was full Norse burial, complete with flames.”
His ashes were to be scattered at sea, per his wishes.
The Artist Formerly Known as Andrew Wilson was special, different. But like so many inventors, at his core was an insatiable appetite for discovery, helping others, and even a little validation.
In those beautifully human ways, They was us. They is us.
Written by Reid Creager
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