James R. Thrower, founder of Whole Herb Company in Sonoma, California, and a well-respected member of the herbal community, passed away on August 9, 2008, at the age of 59.1 He had suffered from multiple system atrophy for more than 7 years.
“Jim was one of those rare people who just pulled you to him,” said his wife Billie Thrower (oral communication, September 4, 2008). “He had tremendous charisma. Jim could relate to anyone: cab drivers, 2-year-olds, [people of different nationalities], employees and presidents of international corporations—all on equal footing. Everyone found him accessible.”
Jim Thrower was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1948.1 Prior to his work in the herbal and spice industries, he became involved in various cultural and political movements. During his early 20s, he served as a member of a media/documentary team that captured aspects of America’s “counter-culture.” He photographed many rock stars and bands, including the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. He also served time in prison over his principle-based refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War. He ultimately took his case to the Supreme Court to clear his name, and in 1976 he received a full pardon signed by President Gerald Ford.
Thrower founded Whole Herb Company in 1975. His interest in herbs was inspired largely by his family’s background in farming, as well as a desire to contribute to the availability of natural health options and quality culinary ingredients.2 Thrower was passionately committed to sourcing quality botanicals for his business. In the company’s early years, he would often travel to Western Europe, Mexico, and the Pacific Islands to source medicinal and culinary herbs and spices. In later years, he was known to travel regularly around the globe visiting and qualifying growers, wild crafters, processers, and exporters in nearly every continent.
“Jim loved the people and the products. He loved traveling all over the world and making contacts with the growers, harvesters, and suppliers,” said Billie Thrower. “For Jim, the business was all about relationships. He really liked to have personal contacts with everyone he did business with, whether they were on the supply end or the purchasing end.”
David Black, president of Meridian Trading Company and a friend of Thrower’s for nearly 30 years, claimed that Thrower’s willingness to travel extensively and establish personal relationships with suppliers and foreign colleagues made him a great ambassador for the herbal industry (oral communication, August 27, 2008). According to Black, many businesses within the herbal and spice industry still operate through handshake and friendship-based partnerships. “In this era of computers and the Internet, [Jim Thrower] helped to develop a business style from the old days,” he said.
Black added that Thrower’s well-attended funeral included some friends and colleagues from foreign countries, such as China and Thailand.
Thrower retired from Whole Herb Company in 2006, due to his failing health.3 Rather than sell the company to a competitor, he chose to hand leadership of the company over to a team of employees, each representing a key component of the business. The management team continues to run the company through a system of shared leadership and cooperation. Although Billie Thrower took a 2-year hiatus from her role at Whole Herb Company to care for her husband, she recently resumed her role in the company in September. “Our management team has done a tremendous job over the past 2 years, and together we’re looking forward to taking Whole Herb to the next level,” she said. “I’m thrilled to be back.”
“Jim was one of those rare individuals who always seemed to have a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, as if he knew some rare secret about life,” said ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal. “No matter how serious things seemed—and he became confronted with a truly serious challenge, a life-threatening illness—he seemed to be able to understand that beneath all of this veneer of personality and civilization there was something reminding him not to take himself, and his condition, too seriously. He was a true gentleman, and a gentle man.”
Peter Landes of KHL Flavors, Inc, and a friend of Thrower’s for more than 20 years, said that many people can give stories of Thrower’s courage, humor, and wit (e-mail, August 21, 2008). “What stood out for me about Jim was his self-deprecating sense of humor and the gentle tone of his inevitable zingers,” Landes said. “I sat in many, many meetings with Jim both at [American Herbal Products Association] and at [American Spice Trade Association] conventions, and nobody could mock a boring or uninformed or generally bad speaker better than Jim. Yet he retained a boyish enthusiasm for business and relationships, and after all those years still reminded me of the high school quarterback he’d been in his optimistic outlook.”
“Jim’s legacy is passion,” said Billie Thrower. “He was passionate about what he did for a living. He was passionate about his products and his people. Jim had a wide range of interests and experiences, and he was intellectually and emotionally fearless in pursuit of them.” She added that his enthusiasm with his job led him to create a work environment that promoted both fun and respect. “He would routinely remind us that our suppliers are every bit as important as our largest customers, and that our business is a three-way partnership. He really ran his company with the bottom line of respect for everyone.”
Thrower is survived by his wife Billie, his 3 daughters Alli, Jamie, and Lulu, and his new granddaughter Chloe James.
A fund has been established in Jim Thrower’s name, which is intended to offer financial assistance to college graduates (or life graduates) with visionary goals related to agriculture. The “Jim Thrower Dreamer’s Grant” will provide $5,000 in “seed” or start-up funds to a selected recipient. Contributors to the grant will be invited to participate in the recipient submissions and awards process. Donations can be made to the “Jim Thrower Dreamer’s Grant” and sent to Whole Herb Company, P.O. Box 1203, Sonoma, CA 95476.