Thorburn McGowan '61

Deceased December 5, 2006

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In Memory

The colorful life of T. J. McGowan ended on December 5, 2006, with his death at age sixty seven in Manhattan, after a short illness due to cardio-respiratory problems.  Independent, determined and tough, T. J., or Thorny to his Amherst friends, was a brilliant securities analyst, a professional gambler and a birdwatcher of note.  A resident of Greenwich Village for four decades, he traveled widely throughout the world despite degenerative rheumatoid arthritis, which dogged him all his adult life and in recent years rendered him a near recluse.

Thorburn Jackson McGowan was born in Manila in the Philippines in 1939 while his father was on assignment with the US Public Health Service for Asia and the Far East.

At the onset of World War II, the family moved to Boston, where T. J. attended middle school at Boston Latin.  Later, in Savannah, GA, size and stature notwithstanding, he excelled as an athlete, earning a lineman’s slot on an all-conference football team.  He completed high school with distinction at New London High School in Connecticut.

T. J. enrolled at Amherst as a chemistry major and earned the math/science prize his freshman year.  Other first-year activities were football and lacrosse.  Following his freshman year, he was diagnosed with severe arthritis, which forced him to take a semester off for treatment and to change his major to economics to avoid long hours in the labs.  Despite constant pain, as a sophomore he was tapped for varsity football and played aggressively even while “taped up” —one of his coaches would later recall —“like a mummy.”  He was a social member of Chi Psi.

After graduation, he joined Irving Trust’s officer training program, followed by analyst positions in marketing and systems with Continental Can and First National City Bank.  He received a MBA degree from Harvard in 1969.  T. J. worked as a management consultant for Arthur Young & Company (1979-1971), followed by assignments in securities analysis with Bache & Company (1971-1973) and Tucker Anthony (1974-1975).

While T. J.’s analytical work and investment recommendations were characterized as “brilliant,” he declined to display the expected degree of conformity and deference and became increasingly estranged from his employers. 

Concurrently he began to gamble in high-stakes backgammon games that started in the early evening and often lasted through the night.  He gradually began to regard gambling as less of a pastime and more of a career, and in 1975, he and the partners at Tucker Anthony amicably parted ways.

T. J. became a full-time gambler, initially in Monte Carlo and Las Vegas, a profession he would pursue for thirty years.  He played blackjack and—later—poker, bringing to both the same level of alert intensity with which he approached life.

In the final three decades of his life, he traveled widely throughout the world, thoroughly researching destinations in advance and often combining a gambling stop with a side trip to an interesting archeological site or a birding hot spot.  A 1990 Amherst-sponsored trip to Egypt and the Sinai was one such adventure.

T. J. is survived by sister Martha, brothers John and William ’69, and beloved nieces Jenna and Willa who greatly miss their uncle T. J.

—William E. McGowan, M.D. ’69
—Richard Willoughby ’69
—James W. Greene ’61