Former AG, Congressman, Supreme Court Justice Ray Thornton has died

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 258 views 

One of Arkansas’ longest serving public officials, Ray Thornton, has died. He was 87 years old.

Over the course of his storied career, Thornton served as Arkansas Attorney General, Congressman, Supreme Court Justice, as well as president of Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas. He also was the first chairman of the Arkansas Lottery Commission.

A statement from former Gov. Mike Beebe confirmed the death.

“Ginger and I were saddened to learn of Ray Thornton’s passing this morning. We send our thoughts and prayers to his wife Betty and all of his loved ones as we remember Ray’s long record of public service as Arkansas’s attorney general, congressman, president of Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas, and as a Justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court.

“He was a gentleman, who always wore a smile and welcomed everyone he met with civility and a warm heart. But he was most admired for his intellect, his integrity, his leadership abilities, and his passion for serving the people of our state,” Beebe said.

Raymond Hoyt Thornton was born in Conway, Arkansas on July 16, 1928. He grew up in Grant County and graduated from Sheridan High School. He obtained a degree in political science from Yale University and earned his J.D. from the University of Arkansas. Between earning his degrees, Thornton served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War.

He was married to Betty Jo Mann of Sheridan, with whom he had three daughters. He was also nephew to W.R. “Witt” Stephens of Little Rock, and J.T. “Jack” Stephens, the powerful business brokers who founded Stephens Inc. and many other Arkansas business interests.

A lifelong Democrat, Thornton was a fixture in Arkansas politics throughout the 1970’s and returned to elected office in the 1990’s. He first served as Arkansas Attorney General in 1970 and moved quickly to represent the Fourth District of Arkansas in Congress in 1972 succeeding David Pryor. Thornton served in Congress until 1978 and was a member of the House Judiciary Committee that considered articles of impeachment against then-President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Thornton voted to move forward with impeachment before Nixon resigned.

In the U.S. Senate Democratic primary in 1978, Thornton narrowly lost making a runoff in a three-man race between then-Gov. David Pryor, U.S. Rep. Jim Guy Tucker and himself. Pryor eventually won the seat and Thornton moved to positions in higher education.

He served as president of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro until 1984 before headlong the University of Arkansas system from 1984 to 1990.

Thornton returned to elected office winning the Second District Congressional seat in 1990, where he served for three terms. He then ran for the Arkansas Supreme Court and served from 1997 to 2005.

He wasn’t done with public service despite the distinguished career. After his tenure on the state’s highest court, Thornton served as the first chairman of the Arkansas Lottery Commission overseeing its implementation in 2009.

In addition to former Gov. Beebe, many elected officials have offered thoughts on Thornton’s passing.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said:

“I was greatly saddened to hear about the passing of former Congressman Ray Thornton. Ray was an Arkansas gem who passionately served the people of this state for many years. He was a man who had a genuine heart for the people of Arkansas. Every time I saw Ray, he had a smile and a word of encouragement. He will be greatly missed, and my heart goes out to his family and loved ones.”

Sen. Tom Cotton issued a statement:

“I join all Arkansans in mourning the death and celebrating the life of Congressman Ray Thornton, a pillar of political and educational life in Arkansas. Whether it was during his tenure as President of both Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas, representing two congressional districts, or serving as a Justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, Ray leaves a lasting legacy of selfless service and principled leadership. My thoughts and prayers are with Congressman Thornton’s family and friends.”

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said:

“Justice Ray Thornton spent his entire life devoted to serving his state and country and was the definition of a public servant having served in the U.S. Navy, as Attorney General of Arkansas, as Congressman representing two districts, President to both Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas and Associate Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. I have read and researched many of Justice Thornton’s opinions over the years, and I am appreciative of Justice Thornton’s years of service, including the impact he had on the office I currently hold. I extend my heartfelt sympathy and prayers to his loved ones.”

Lt. Governor Tim Griffin, who held the Second District Congressional seat like Thornton, said:

“I was saddened this morning to hear of the passing of Ray Thornton. Ray was a long-time dedicated public servant who served Arkansas in many ways, including as attorney general of Arkansas, a United States congressman, justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, and president of both Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas. His legacy is inspirational to the next generation of leaders.”

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman said:

“Congressman Ray Thornton was a gifted politician and statesman whose work reached across Arkansas,” Westerman said. “Twice a congressman, he took a stand for justice during one of our nation’s most trying times as a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Between his two tours of service in the House, Ray made his impact in higher education not only in Arkadelphia, but also in Fayetteville and Jonesboro. The universities he led turned out thousands of men and women who have made a lasting impact in too many fields to mention. Though he retired from higher education and Congress, Ray’s dedication to the Natural State continued with his service on the Arkansas Supreme Court. His life was one of service to his fellow man and dedication to his state and nation.”

Rep. French Hill issued the following comments:

“Martha and I extend our deepest condolences to the family of former Arkansas Congressman Ray Thornton. As a veteran of the Korean War, a Congressman, a state Supreme Court Justice, and an educator, Ray dedicated his entire adult life to service of our state and nation. He was a true gentlemen and an outstanding leader who used his drive, wit, and energy to represent our citizens and improve higher educational opportunity for our young people. Though he will be greatly missed by many throughout Arkansas, his countless contributions will live on for many years to come.”

Arkansas State University System President Dr. Charles “Chuck” Welch said:

“On behalf of the entire Arkansas State University System, I want to express our deepest condolences to the family of Ray Thornton on his passing. Mr. Thornton was a legendary figure for higher education in the state of Arkansas, serving both as the president of Arkansas State and later for the UA System. Combined with his service as a congressman, attorney general and Arkansas Supreme Court justice, Ray was the quintessential advocate for his home state. While we mourn his passing, we know his achievements in public service to our state will serve as his enduring legacy.”

Bishop Woosley, Arkansas Scholarship Lottery Director, provided these comments:

“Sadly, today we learned of the passing of the first Chair of the Arkansas Lottery Commission, Ray Thornton. The first meeting of the Arkansas Lottery Commission was held on May 5, 2009, during which the first action by the nine appointed Commissioners was the selection of Ray Thornton as Chair of the Lottery Commission. In his role as Chair, Ray Thornton guided the work of the new enterprise with great care, energy, and enthusiasm, and under his leadership, the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery commenced operations in record-breaking time and generated revenues well in excess of predicted levels. The Arkansas Scholarship Lottery wishes to thank Mr. Thornton for his many contributions to the Lottery and to the students of Arkansas. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”