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Tom Thorne: A Class Act

By Heather Prescott

  • Member of the language department since 1993; retiring as department head
  • Held the David F. Chapman Chair from 2001–2022
  • Served as Culbertson House dorm dean and Karux yearbook adviser
  • Wife, Barb, is a longtime swim coach/ school store manager; daughters Elissa ’06 and Julia ’07 are both graduates

Somehow, despite our 24-year professional connection, calling Mr. Thorne “Tom” has always been difficult for me. Maybe it’s the tweed?

After hearing Cate Vickery ’22 introduce Mr. Thorne at Commencement, I can certainly understand why he is retiring. What extensive service to the school! All of those activities, in such varied arenas of campus life, sound endless and demanding when listed together. We can also add Mr. Thorne’s work with the school farm, because he does love animals— and usually animal lovers are supportive of the helpless and the vulnerable. Tom’s extensive skills with husbandry are a solid partnership with his interpersonal aptitude, whether with students or adults.

This has been true for the last 29 years, of which he has been my department head for 14.

I could list all the suggestions Mr. Thorne has made to me over time. They range from cooking tips to plumbing repairs, and there are a lot of teaching suggestions in between. But I don’t think I have that kind of space here. So, I’ll just compare his highlights to those of someone that a few of you will know.

For me, Mr. Thorne has been my “E.F. Hutton.” If you are over a certain age, then you know what I am talking about. E.F. Hutton’s commercials depicted people out for activities. Invariably, the conversation would turn to the stock market, and that’s when one person would say to the other: “My broker is E.F. Hutton. And E.F. Hutton says…”

Hearing that incantation, everyone would fall silent, leaning in to garner the sage advice of the legendary stockbroker. The commercials all ended with the same hypnotic tag line: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

When Tom has talked, I have tried to listen. When I have, it has made me a better teacher, and a better person. As Tom said at Commencement, “The people around you, every one of them, have something to teach, if you are wise enough to ask and observe.”

This is something that Tom’s students already know. His room is always buzzing during Latin help sessions—and it’s not because Tom is a bad teacher, or because his students are cognitively limited. It’s because they want to be around him.

They respond to him because he makes himself available to listen, and especially to get to know them. That should be obvious, by his frequent references during his Commencement speech to underscore examples of student strengths in the graduating class.

Tom helps students learn how to succeed by being smart, by being funny, by setting a good example, and by showing that anger is not the solution to a frustrating obstacle.

In the same vein, Tom helps to make colleagues’ jobs easier by solving problems efficiently, by knowing a lot about technology, by offering to help, by asking how someone is feeling (and genuinely caring about the answer), by leading without ego, and by doing things for others without being asked.

Tom also makes people laugh, in seemingly effortless ways. He does this by making light of the difficult inevitabilities in our lives, by recognizing our universal humanity, and by pretending not to care about things that are important, thereby diminishing their power over him.

As our resident E.F. Hutton, Tom has imparted wisdom that is all-encompassing, but here are just a few statements that he has shared with the language department over the years from which others would likely benefit:

Always meet students where they are.
All points of view are valid, but students need to defend their viewpoints with more than just their feelings.
There’s nothing like getting lost to help you find your way.
It’s OK to tell students, “This is hard. But you can do it.”
Always remember that you are integral to the student learning process. You will never be incidental.

Mr. Thorne, you should be proud of the stability and confidence you’ve helped the Language Department to develop over all these years. We will miss you, but we’ll never forget you.

Now put on that tweed bathing suit you’ve had tailor-made for Albanian beaches, and start retiring!

Heather Prescott has taught French at Mercersburg as a member of the faculty since 1998. Like Tom Thorne, she is a former head of the school’s language department.

She is a past recipient of the Zern Excellence in Teaching Award.

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