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A beloved bus driver stopped by Covid-19

John Thrower, a devoted husband, father and city of Richmond transit employee, worked through the pandemic.
John Thrower.
John Thrower.Courtesy Tracey Thrower

John Thrower was devoted to his work as a municipal bus driver for the city of Richmond, Virginia. But he was afraid of driving during the coronavirus pandemic. He worried that not all passengers were carefully following the transit company's mandatory mask requirement this summer, said his wife, Tracey Thrower. "He said: 'I can catch this. I'm scared. It's scary going to work, but I know I have to do this,'" Tracey said.

In mid-August, after working a 14-hour shift, Thrower coughed through the night and woke up in the morning without an appetite. "I checked his temperature, and it was 101, then 102," Tracey said. "I said, 'You're going to the hospital' — and that was the last time I was able to touch him."

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Thrower's five-week battle with Covid-19 ended Sept. 23, two days before Tracey's 54th birthday. He was 49. Thrower is survived by Tracey, his son, Jai'Shawn, and his stepchildren, Shonte, Lavon and Bria.

IMAGE: John and Tracey Thrower
John and Tracey Thrower.Courtesy Tracey Thrower

Richmond was Thrower's hometown. He spent several years cooking at nursing homes after graduating from Armstrong High School. In November 2011, he was in a sandwich shop when his "giant smile" caught Tracey's eye; they chatted about Thanksgiving. She agreed to give him her number. A few weeks later, the pair celebrated Thanksgiving together. "Usually, I never give my phone number to anybody, but at the time I did," Tracey said. "And we've been together ever since."

They married in 2014. Thrower applied that year to work as a bus operator with the Greater Richmond Transit Company. He took the job hoping to provide for his new wife, said Jai'Shawn, 27, his son from a previous relationship, who is a flight attendant. Thrower, a doting father, sought out Jai'Shawn's advice before the transit test. "He was asking me how I study when I went to school, and I just said: 'Repetition. Read it all day,'" Jai'Shawn said. "That's what we did. I took that book and asked him questions, and that man was getting them all right — and ended up getting the job."

Thrower embraced all aspects of the job, including the staff-enhancement activities like pumpkin decorating contests and annual driving competitions. Everyone liked him. When drivers left the company, Thrower would call them multiple times a week just to check in, said his friend and fellow bus driver Randy McQuinn, who is himself isolating after having tested positive for Covid-19. "I'm talking about 10, 15, 20, 30 people that he's calling every week. ... Who does that but John?" McQuinn said.

Outside work, Thrower enjoyed traveling and singing karaoke on cruise ships to "September," Earth, Wind & Fire's 1978 hit. "John sounded horrible, but he would be up there giving his all, and he would be having a ball with it. We would be laughing, and he would be up there laughing while singing karaoke," McQuinn said. "John was never a self-conscious person. He did not mind having fun for everybody."

He put in long hours of overtime with the company, which led to his proudest accomplishment: the purchase of a three-bedroom home.

Thrower's wife fears it was work that endangered her husband. Thrower was one of 24 Greater Richmond Transit Company employees and contractors to have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began. A spokesperson for the transit company said contact tracing "has not indicated that employees contracted the virus at work."

In a news release, the bus company's CEO, Julie Timm, mourned Thrower, saying, "This loss to GRTC hits directly into our hearts and reminds us all how deadly this disease can be, and how all of us are susceptible."

Thrower was the first, and thus far the only, GRTC employee to lose his life to the virus.

"I didn't see this coming, and for the whole month he was in there on that ventilator, I was hoping and praying," Jai'Shawn said. "I just want to bring awareness — and let people know this is serious."

These days, Tracey is left reminiscing about his grin, the one that drew her to him in the first place. "I'll remember ... that smile always just lit up the room," she said. "It really lights up the room."

CORRECTION (October 8, 4:36 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the circumstances under which John Thrower met his wife. They were both customers at a sandwich shop; he was not working there.