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Passenger: Thomas E. Burnett Jr.

Sunday, October 28, 2001

As a young man, Tom Burnett used to think that if he could ever earn $25,000 a year and have a company car, he would be king of the world.

Thomas E. Burnett Jr.
dot.gifSenior vice president and chief operating officer, Thoratec Corp., 38, San Ramon, Calif.
Wife, Deena; daughters, Madison, 5, Halley, 5, Anna Clare, 3
He was returning home after a weekend in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and a business meeting in New Jersey

Years later, as senior vice president and chief operating officer of Thoratec Corp., known nationally for its creation of heart assist pumps, he was successful beyond his earlier dreams. Burnett would tell his wife, Deena, that he couldn't believe his achievements.

Articulate and competitive, a motivator who could talk a person into almost anything, Burnett was a born salesman. While he couldn't talk his mother into letting him fish from the edge of a dock as a 3-year-old, he did persuade her to let him sit in the middle of it and drop his line through the cracks.

In his hometown of Bloomington in 1980, he quarterbacked a high school team with a modicum of talent to the state championship game. A 1985 University of Minnesota graduate, he parlayed an acquaintance's introduction into a job in California selling intravenous pumps. By 1989, he'd met Deena in Atlanta, where she'd just completed flight-attendant training for Delta Airlines.

Their first date was at an Applebee's where they spent six hours talking. She knew she would marry him after he unscrewed the light bulb above the table and tossed it over his shoulder, shattering it on the floor.

"I'm trying to create a mood here," he told her, "and this light's not helping."

They married in April 1992 after a "romance in the air." Since Burnett traveled all week, the couple would meet in airports, or Deena would leave notes for him on planes. They agreed they were as comfortable in planes as they were in cars. But in 1995, when Deena was expecting, she stopped flying.

Burnett entered fatherhood on his own terms. He liked pushing their three girls around the neighborhood in the stroller, but only while smoking a cigar. Diapers, baths and feeding were on an as-needed basis.

For all his traveling, Burnett was cautious. Long wanting to parachute, he backed out when the chance came, worrying about his family. And when the two of them left for a vacation, he insisted they take separate planes so an accident wouldn't leave the children parentless.

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