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School Namesake Flora L. Thornton Dies

School Namesake Flora L. Thornton Dies
Flora L. Thornton at the USC Thornton School of Music's 125th anniversary celebration in September 2009

Flora Laney Thornton, a philanthropist with a lifelong interest in higher education, the arts, preventive medicine and numerous charities, died May 7 of pulmonary disease. She was 96 and attributed her longevity to practicing what she preached about preventive medicine.

In 1999, Thornton gave $25 million to USC’s music school. In recognition of that gift – at the time, the largest ever given to a school of music at a U.S. college or university – the USC Board of Trustees voted to rename the school in Thornton’s honor. The USC Flora L. Thornton School of Music was dedicated on March 23, 1999 at a gala ceremony on the University Park campus.

“Few members of the Trojan Family have left a legacy that is as significant, extensive and enduring as that of Flora Thornton,” said USC President Steven B. Sample. “She believed that education – whether it is focused on music, medicine or literacy – has the power to transform lives. Her longtime support of schools and programs throughout the university helped USC carry out its fundamental mission. As the patron of the school of music that proudly bears her name, she ensured that generations of faculty and students will have the opportunity to pursue their academic goals and fulfill their artistic dreams.”

In February 2006, Thornton made an additional gift of $5 million to the school to jump-start a drive aimed at creating a state-of-the-art building to accommodate the increasing needs of its students and faculty.

That same year, she also gave $2 million to the Los Angeles Opera to help create the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, a two- to three-year paid residency for singers and pianists of exceptional talent who are in transition from academic training to a professional operatic career. This program is designed to discover and develop the talents of exceptionally gifted young artists from all over the United States.

“Flora forever changed the artistic landscape of Los Angeles,” USC Thornton School dean Robert Cutietta said. “First as a role model and secondly as a philanthropist. Personally, she radiated and exemplified what it means to be truly cultured as a human being.

“Her manner and actions were always refined and in the best of taste. As a philanthropist, she propelled the Thornton School into the top echelons of music schools in the world. She has made a similar impact on the L.A. Opera.

“Because of her incredibly generous nature and heartfelt devotion, Flora Thornton’s name will forever be associated with the high arts in our community. I could not imagine the music world of Los Angeles without her.”

In addition to supporting music at USC, Thornton was a founding angel of the Los Angeles Opera and a member of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Board. She also was active in Blue Ribbon, the Music Center’s premier women’s support group. She was a leadership donor to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and in 1998, received the Heritage Award “for significant contributions to the performing arts at the Music Center.”

The Santa Fe Opera also benefited from her generosity. She served for nine years on its board and then established the Thornton Conductor’s Fund in memory of the opera’s founder, John Crosby. She contributed several scholarships to the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara and sat on its council. She funded, for two seasons, its Flora L. Thornton Chair in Voice occupied by Marilyn Horne.

Thornton also was a longtime champion of the health sciences, especially nutrition, preventive medicine and community education. These longstanding interests earned her an appointment to a term on the California Commission on Food and Nutrition. She sponsored the 1984 nutrition exhibit at the California Museum of Science and Industry and remained an honorary member of that museum’s board. For its re-opening in 1988 as The California ScienCenter, she sponsored the popular exhibit The Energy Factory in the World of Life. The recently opened exhibit World of Ecology also benefited from her support.

Through the Flora L. Thornton Foundation, she made a number of generous gifts to health-related programs at USC, including $1.5 million to endow the Flora L. Thornton Chair in Preventive Medicine; $1 million to support a floor in the Dr. Norman Topping Tower at the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, which houses the Department of Cancer Prevention; and $2 million to establish the Flora L. Thornton Chair in Vision Research at the Doheny Eye Institute and the Keck School of Medicine of USC. She also established an endowment fund in support of Francine Kaufman’s youth fitness program at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

At USC, Thornton was a member of the Keck School’s Board of Overseers and a founding member of the governing board of the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. She played a major role in refurbishing USC’s Hancock Auditorium and also belonged to the USC Associates.

In honor of her civic leadership, support for worthy causes and acknowledgment of the value of the university’s music school, Thornton received an honorary doctorate from USC in 1999. In 2000, she became one of the first honorary members of the USC Board of Trustees, elected for her extraordinary contributions to the university’s advancement.

At Pepperdine University, Thornton established the Flora Laney Thornton Professorship in Nutrition and served on the school’s board of regents for two decades. She received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the university, and was instrumental in building the Charles B. Thornton Administrative Center and the Howard White Student Center on that campus as well as aiding the 2003 renovation of the Payson Library. She helped establish Pepperdine’s graduate school of public policy and for it, funded the Ronald Reagan Professorship in Public Policy.

At St. John’s Health Center, she was a member of the foundation board, and established the Flora L. Thornton Community Health Education Program there.

Reflecting her interest in both local and broader issues, Thornton was a former member of the board of KCET and the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. She was the founder of the Council of the Library Foundation, which provides support for the Los Angeles Public Library system. In the 1980s, President Reagan appointed her to the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board, where she served a seven-year term, and was a founding member of its James Madison Council.

She was a leadership donor to the building of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and was honored by the archdiocese with its Ecumenical Award presented to non-Catholics. Among many other awards she was recently honored at the 25th anniversary celebration for the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts for her support of its Full Circle Opera Program. And, in addition to her numerous philanthropic activities, she was an avid painter.

Thornton was born in Independence, Kan., the younger of two girls born to Charles William and Effie Maria Smith Laney. The family relocated to Ft. Worth, Texas, and after high school, Flora Laney attended Texas Tech University, majoring in nutrition and clothing design, and subsequently studied voice in New York. She performed in two Broadway musicals, May Wine and White Horse Inn, before marrying Charles Bates “Tex” Thornton, in 1937. Their two children, Charles Bates Thornton Jr., and William Laney Thornton, were born in Washington, D.C., during Charles Sr.’s years with the Army Air Force statistical control unit. Following World War II, they spent two years in Detroit while he and his colleagues, dubbed “The Whiz Kids,” revamped Ford Motor Company.

The Thorntons relocated to Southern California in 1948, where “Tex” worked for several years with Howard Hughes at Hughes Aircraft. He made an entrepreneurial leap and, with some partners, founded the electronics and shipbuilding firm, Litton Industries. As company CEO and chairman, he served on various local boards and together, he and his wife became involved in local community-building and philanthropic efforts.

“Tex,” a USC trustee, endowed the Charles B. Thornton Professorship in Finance at the USC Marshall School of Business. After his death in 1981, a floor of the USC/Norris Cancer Center Hospital was named in his honor through a gift from Litton Industries.

In 2005, Thornton married Eric Small. Together, they supported National Multiple Sclerosis Society programs and established the Eric Small Centers for Optimal Living for people with MS and similar challenges. The four centers include one at USC and one at UCLA.

Flora Thornton is survived by her husband, Eric, sons Charles and Laney, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be directed to the Flora L. Thornton Scholarship Program at the USC Thornton School of Music.

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