Former PA Governor/U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh ’50 Dies

Friday, January 1, 2021
Dick Thornburgh ’50

Richard L. “Dick” Thornburgh ’50, who served as the 41st governor of Pennsylvania from 1979 to 1987 and as U.S. attorney general from 1988 to 1991, died December 31 in Oakmont, PA. He was 88.
 
Thornburgh was the U.S. attorney for western Pennsylvania from 1969 to 1975, when he was appointed assistant attorney general for the criminal division. He defeated Peter Flaherty in the 1978 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election. Thornburgh held positions in the Department of Justice under five U.S. Presidents; he was appointed attorney general by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 and continued in the role after George H.W. Bush was elected to the presidency later that year. He also served as undersecretary-general of the United Nations.
 
As Pennsylvania’s governor, Thornburgh steered the state through the 1979 Three Mile Island crisis, balanced state budgets for eight consecutive years, reduced both personal and business tax rates, cut the state’s record-high indebtedness, and left office with a $350 million surplus.

Read a story on Thornburgh’s passing from the Washington Post.
 
Born July 16, 1932, in Pittsburgh, Thornburgh followed his older brother, Charlie ’38, to Mercersburg, where he served as sports editor of the Mercersburg News. Thornburgh was also a member of the baseball and tennis teams and the Irving Society and active in Stony Batter Players and the Press Club. In a 2013 first-person essay published in Mercersburg magazine, Thornburgh said he initially wanted to become a sportswriter—instead, he studied engineering at Yale University (where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1954) before completing a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

In 1960, when Thornburgh was just 28 years old, an automobile accident killed his first wife, the former Virginia Hooton, and left their son, Peter, permanently disabled. Thornburgh said the tragedy inspired his dedication to public service; as U.S. attorney general, he worked tirelessly for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law in 1990.
 
Thornburgh had been Pennsylvania’s governor for less than three months when word reached the state capital of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident on March 28, 1979. His calm demeanor is credited with reassuring a nervous public during the aftermath; he famously escorted President Jimmy Carter through a tour of the plant, located just south of Harrisburg.
 
Following his public service, Thornburgh retired as counsel to the international law firm K&L Gates (which he had originally joined in 1959). In more recent years, he served as the examiner in the WorldCom bankruptcy proceedings; as an investigator into the CBS News allegations of improprieties by President George W. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard that led to the resignation of anchor Dan Rather; and as author or a critique questioning the accuracy of the Freeh Report regarding the conduct of former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno.
 
 

Thornburgh talking with students on campus in 2007

Thornburgh was the 1992 recipient of Mercersburg’s Class of ’32 Distinguished Alumnus Award, which is the highest honor bestowed by the school’s alumni body. He also received the Pennsylvania Society’s Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement, the Distinguished Service Medal from the American Legion, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from The American Lawyer magazine. He served as a trustee for the University of Pittsburgh, the Urban Institute, the Gettysburg Foundation, and the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, and was the recipient of honorary degrees from more than 30 colleges and universities.
 
Survivors include his wife, Ginny Judson Thornburgh, as well as four sons, six grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
 

Alumni Remembrances of Dick Thornburgh

From Charles H. “Chuck” Loughran ’53:
After Dick graduated from Mercersburg in 1950 and I in 1953, we didn’t see much of each other until we graduated from Pitt Law School and I went to work for my father in Greensburg as his partner, and Dick went to work as an associate at Kirkpatrick Lockhart in Pittsburgh.

On a personal note, we later renewed our acquaintances at a rehearsal dinner for his friend the groom, and my friend the bride. We sat across from each other (Dick’s first wife had been killed in an auto crash, and he was raising his three children), and he sat next to a bridesmaid, Ginny Judson. It was a case of immediate love at first sight. I witnessed one of the most memorable and touching moments between two people meant to be together for the rest of their lives. They married in 1963 and had a fourth son.

Ironically, we both became interested in politics somewhat for the same reasons. I ran for judge as a young man to bring a fresh approach to our county bench and lost, allegedly because I was only 36. Dick was appointed federal prosecutor for the Western District of Pennsylvania by Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. He gained notoriety as a solid crime fighter and it was my pleasure to know such an honorable public official. As an aside, I later ran for judge and was elected by winning the nomination of both the Republican and Democratic parties where I served until mandatory retirement.

Dick went on in his political life to become a two-term governor of Pennsylvania, where he gained political notoriety for his adept handling of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. He brought that calm demeanor against panic, which was a wonderful trait that made him so successful in politics. 

In 1988, President Reagan nominated Dick to replace Attorney General Edwin Meese under a cloud of issues. Later, President [George H.W.] Bush appointed Dick as attorney general of the United States. His political star was rising, as his friend Elsie Hillman, a.k.a. “Mrs. Republican,” was touting Dick for her choice as the next presidential candidate.

In 1991, he resigned as attorney general to run for U.S. senator from Pennsylvania in the unexpired term of Senator John Heinz, who was killed in an airplane crash. Harris Wofford was appointed temporarily to this seat. Sadly, Dick was favored to win but in a surprise upset, Mr. Wofford won with the help of John Kennedy.

He began his political career with an unsuccessful run for a Pittsburgh seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966, and ended it 25 years later, in losing to Mr. Wofford.

About seven years ago, I ran into Dick and Ginny at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, where we were both to receive a dubious recognition by being given a sash. (I really think it was a way to interest us in being donors.) Our wives saw each other in the ladies room, where Ginny told my wife of Dick’s declining health. While waiting for our wives, Dick came toward me shuffling as he walked to shake my hand, to reminisce about our days at Mercersburg, and to tell me he had neuropathy. I was privileged to know this very talented, honest, and hard-working man who was dedicated to being a wonderful public servant. May he rest in peace!

From David Genter ’52: 
We all found in reading Dick’s obituary what an amazing person he was. He was honest, a leader—and an individual who, along with his wife Ginny, was dedicated to improving the lives of his fellow man. I would like to insert another of Dick’s interests, baseball at the major league level. This story was told to me many years ago by one of the participants.  Let me set the scene:  the Governor’s residence, the formal dining room, and it is just after dinner, and attending are Dick, his very special guest, Jimmy Stewart [’28], and a mutual friend who related this story to me.

Both Dick and Jimmy were very knowledgeable about the game and, in particular, historic trivia.  For the next several hours the two went head to head trying to out-stump the other with questions like “in the third game of the 1949 World Series, what was the name of the catcher who dropped two pop-up fly balls and went on to lose the game?” Don’t we all wish we were the fly on the wall to enjoy this event?

With all of the tributes paid to Dick in the published obituaries, this is the Dick I like to remember: a guy interested in the common man’s baseball and his fellow man.

From Paul Dickman ’71:
I want to commemorate the passing of a great man both in politics and the history of nuclear energy in our country. It was my honor to meet Governor Thornburgh on several occasions. The last was in 2012 in Vienna, Austria, at the International Atomic Energy Agency at a meeting on the Fukushima accident. We both presented papers at an IAEA experts conference on communication during a nuclear emergency.

We were Mercersburg Academy boys: he class of 1950, me class of 1971, and we were both at Three Mile Island during the summer of 1979—he was the governor, I was a junior nuclear scientist chasing down iodine leaks from the crippled reactor.

While generations apart, we shared many common experiences and events growing up at the Academy. Three Mile Island remains a key event in the history of nuclear energy. I had a small role participating in recovery operations, but Dick Thornburgh was a giant. He was one of my heroes because in a time of crisis, he stepped up to the plate and did what a leader is supposed to do, and that is tell people that there will be transparency and accountability and that they needed to trust their government.

My epitaph: Gov. Richard L. “Dick” Thornburgh, Mercersburg Academy Class of 1950—a politician who made decisions based on science and trust in the government agencies responsible for protecting people and the environment. We will miss him.