Dick Thornburgh, ex-governor and U.S. attorney general, dies

A Tribute to an Extraordinary Leader and Good Friend

Richard L. Thornburgh

July 16, 1932 – December 31, 2020

What already had been a cruel and challenging year brought further sadness on its final day with the death of Dick Thornburgh on December 31, 2020.  His passing is mourned by everyone associated with the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law & Public Policy, the Thornburgh Archives and Institute of Politics of the University of Pittsburgh.

Building on his belief that “serving on behalf of others is the highest calling possible,” Dick Thornburgh crafted an extraordinary leadership record over the course of his long and distinguished career.  Among the many important positions he held were:  United States Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania; Assistant United States Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice; two-term Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; United States Attorney General under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush; and Under-Secretary-General for Administration of the United Nations. What really sets Dick Thornburgh’s record apart, though, is that he not only served in all of these important roles but that he did so much good in each and every one of them. 

Just ten weeks into his first term as Governor, he was confronted with the nuclear crisis at Three Mile Island, a challenge that he met with disciplined decision-making and regular communications with an anxious public.  In describing his role, he said, “You have to reassure people.  You have to go before the cameras and microphones and tell them what you know and what you don’t.  You have to stop the rumors, and, of course, you have to make decisions. There isn’t any Republican way or Democratic way to deal with a nuclear crisis.  Nobody has ever had to deal with this kind of accident before.”  Jimmy Carter, the sitting Democratic President and a nuclear engineer, said, “Governor Thornburgh has done a superlative job,” and The Washington Star described him as “one of the few authentic heroes of that episode as a calm voice against panic.”

Mr. Thornburgh was especially proud of the role he played as U.S. Attorney General in serving as the point-person for the administration of President Bush in advocating for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The ADA has been viewed as one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in our nation’s history.  On the occasion of its becoming law, Mr. Thornburgh called the day “one of emancipation, not just for the millions of Americans with disabilities who will directly benefit from this Act, but even more so for the rest of us now free to benefit from the contributions which those with disability can make to our economy, our communities and our own well-being.”

Integrity was a hallmark of Mr. Thornburgh’s service in every position that he held.  He prosecuted public corruption cases as a young United States Attorney, a pattern that he continued and expanded to include savings and loan officials. defense contractors and white-collar criminals as U.S. Attorney General.  He also made combatting racial, religious and ethnic “hate crimes” a priority and has been credited, more generally, with enhancing the morale and reputation of the Department of Justice, after his predecessor as Attorney General resigned in the face of ethics and misconduct charges.  As Governor, he had successfully confronted the similar challenge of restoring confidence in Pennsylvania’s state government, which had been plagued by scandals and financial crises under his predecessor. 

When not serving in public office, Mr. Thornburgh maintained a career-long relationship with the firm that he joined as a young lawyer, then a major Pittsburgh law firm known as Kirkpatrick & Lockhart and now known as K&L Gates, an international law firm that is one of the largest in the world.  Not surprisingly, as a lawyer in private practice, he was called to serve in special roles in high-profile matters involving ethics issues.  These included service as Examiner in the WorldCom bankruptcy proceedings, then the largest ever filed, where he was charged with reporting on any wrongdoing that may have contributed to the company’s downfall.  He also was retained by CBS to lead an investigation into charges aired on “60 Minutes” relating to the service of President George W. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard.

Neither the high positions that he held nor the important work that he did ever changed Mr. Thornburgh’s approachable personality, which some have attributed to his Western Pennsylvania roots.  Instead, he remained keenly interested in people and was unfailingly kind, respectful, empathetic and unpretentious in his dealings with others.  In that key sense, he provided an inspiring example of leadership not only through what he did but also by how he did it.

Mr. Thornburgh was the recipient of many high honors, including 32 honorary degrees.  One of those honorary degrees was awarded by the University of Pittsburgh, where years earlier he had begun laying the foundation for his remarkable career in law by earning a degree from Pitt’s School of Law.  He also served as a Trustee of the University and was an Emeritus Trustee at the time of his death. 

Mr. Thornburgh was a recipient of the University of Pittsburgh Chancellor’s Medal, which has been described as “the most prestigious of all medals and medallions awarded by the University.”  Rarely bestowed, its recipients are to be persons “who have left an indelible mark on the proud traditions, values, and character inherent in the University of Pittsburgh.”  He also was awarded the University’s Bicentennial Medallion, its 220 Medallion, and its Trustee Medallion and was an honored speaker at both its annual Commencement Ceremony and its annual Honors Convocation.

More recently, Mr. Thornburgh received the Pitt Institute of Politics’ Elsie Hilliard Hillman Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Public Service.  That presentation was made during a special American Experience program featuring his fellow former two-term Pennsylvania Governors -- Tom Ridge, a Republican, and Ed Rendell, a Democrat.  That program focused on leadership, politics and governance, topics of great importance to all Americans, particularly as we move through these highly polarized times.

In 1998, Mr. Thornburgh donated the magnificent and massive archival collection of his personal papers to the University of Pittsburgh.  The collection provides a comprehensive record of his life, from his community engagement in the early 1960’s through his service in significant government positions at the local, state, national and international levels.  Since he was known as a “saver,” the collection also includes such unanticipated items as his personal scorecard from the 1960 World Series, when his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the New York Yankees, and his law school textbooks.  The collection is held in the Archives & Special Collections of the University Library System.  It is digitized, unrestricted and available for use by students, scholars and others who may be interested.

In 2007, the  Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law & Public Policy was established at the University.  The Forum, now a part of Pitt’s Institute of Politics, provides “a unique opportunity to foster public education and civic action on important public policy issues, building on Mr. Thornburgh’s legacy by creating a framework for advancing his vision of creating effective and principled governance.”  The Forum presents a variety of programming, much of it focused on governance, as well as the annual Thornburgh Family Lecture on Disability Law & Policy; partners with the University Honors College in sponsoring the American Experience Lecture, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary and is the longest-running lecture series at Pitt; supports work by students and faculty in the Thornburgh archives; and presents student awards designed to promote careers in public service and work making a difference in the lives of children and adults with disabilities.

Everyone connected with the Dick Thornburgh Forum, the Thornburgh Archives, and the University’s Institute of Politics mourns the passing of this extraordinary leader, someone we also had the very good fortune to work with and come to know as a kind, caring and highly principled person who always was driven by his commitment to advancing the greater good.  It is our goal, through our ongoing efforts, to nurture and spotlight the power of his inspiring example. 

In lieu of flowers, the Thornburgh family has indicated that contributions to either the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh or the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law & Public Policy would be welcome.  An obituary prepared by key members of Mr. Thornburgh’s gubernatorial team, in cooperation with his family, can be found on the Thornburgh Forum website.  Other informative obituaries can be found in numerous local and national publications.