USC News

Menu Search

Honorary Degree Recipients

Flora Laney Thornton
Doctor of Humane Letters,
Honoris Causa

Christine E. Shade

IT IS SAID THAT it’s better to give than to receive. But in the case of the $25 million that Flora Laney Thornton gave to the School of Music in March, it’s a gift that worked both ways.

“The joy that was reflected back to me – what it meant to those in the school – was beyond my expectation,” Thornton said recently. “I couldn’t be happier.”

At the ceremony acknowledging the generous gift and celebrating the renamed USC Thornton School of Music, President Steven B. Sample said Thornton’s generosity would “significantly enhance our ability to attract top talent to Southern California and to nurture and develop it in the fullest ways possible.”

“It’s nice to back a winner,” said Thornton then of her gift, which significantly increased the school’s endowment and will be used to improve the school’s specialty: training about 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students in the rigors of serious music and for careers as performers, arrangers and composers.

Thornton told a KABC-TV reporter that she grew up with music and was a professional “for a short span of my career … so what it comes back to, of course, is my interest in music and seeing that it is carried on.”

Larry J. Livingston, dean of the school, said Thornton’s gesture “will forever stand as a tribute to the gifted faculty, outstanding students and renowned guest artists who have graced our halls for more than a century.”

In honor of Thornton’s civic leadership, support for worthy causes and acknowledgment of the value of the university’s music school, she will receive a degree in humane letters at the main commencement ceremony on Friday, May 14.

Thornton is an active participant in the arts in Los Angeles. She set up a scholarship for graduate students in voice at USC, and she is a founding angel of the Los Angeles Opera, a member of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Board, and is active in Blue Ribbon, the Music Center’s premier women’s support group.

But her interests extend beyond the arts.

She is a pioneer in recognizing the importance of diet and nutrition in health and disease prevention, and during her 41-year marriage to the co-founder of Litton Industries, she established:

• The Flora L. Thornton Community Health Education Program at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica.

• The Flora Laney Thornton Professorship in Nutrition at Pepperdine.

• The Flora L. Thornton Chair in Preventive Medicine and the Flora Thornton Cancer Prevention and Research Education Center, both at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital.

Thornton is a member of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council and founder of the Council of the Library Foun-dation, which provides support for the Los Angeles public library system.

In the 1980s, President Reagan appointed Thornton to the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board.

As a young woman during the Depression in Fort Worth, Texas, she attended Texas Tech University, majoring in nutrition and clothing design. She took voice lessons and later studied voice in New York and performed in two Broadway musicals.

She returned to Texas, and in 1937 married Charles “Tex” Thornton, co-founder and chairman of Litton Industries. Tex Thornton was a USC trustee and endowed the Charles B. Thornton Professorship in Finance at the USC Marshall School of Business.

After her husband’s death in 1981, Thornton rediscovered her early love of music and became a patron of the arts. She said she has “a fine appreciation of talent” but is reluctant to pigeonhole her musical tastes, saying only that she separates music between classical and jazz – “I don’t care too much for the in-between.”

Thornton doesn’t believe in anonymous giving. “I believe that people who give should stand up and say what they’re giving,” she said, “because it encourages others to do the same. Of course you do it because you’re interested in furthering mankind and education. And if you have the ability to do it, it’s a satisfaction to be able to do it.”

THE THORNTON GIFT further establishes USC as a key player in the development of the downtown Figueroa Corridor, especially in the area of the arts.

“Flora Thornton’s philanthropy will leave an enduring mark on the history of the arts at USC and throughout Los Angeles,” Sample said. “With anchors such as the USC Thorn-ton School of Music and another recipient of her generosity, Disney Hall, now in development, we are in the midst of a cultural renaissance in downtown Los Angeles. I think the future will see Mrs. Thornton as a key builder of that renaissance.”

Thornton recognized USC’s music school as “the best” and said she wanted to make it even better.

“This particular gift continues to be very meaningful to me,” Thornton said. Making the substantial naming gift, she said, “was one of those decisions that I didn’t come by easily. But it was just sort of providential, being in the right place at the right time.”

Rosa Parks
Doctor of Humane Letters,
Honoris Causa

by Melissa Payton

HONORS ARE not exactly unheard-of for Rosa Parks, a living symbol of the stirring beginnings of the civil rights movement in the United States.

Just last month, for example, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress, for her role in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that led to a Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation.

But when President Steven B. Sample bestows on Parks an honorary doctorate of humane letters at USC’s commencement on Friday, May 14, those present will get an increasingly rare glimpse of the woman who has been called the patron saint of the civil rights movement.

Parks, who is 86, is cutting back on her once-frequent personal appearances. A Los Angeles official with her Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development said he has turned down 200 media requests for interviews with Parks in the wake of the Congressional Gold Medal in order to let Parks prepare for Friday’s commencement.

Parks is not scheduled to speak at commencement, and the comments she issued through her personal assistant earlier this month were brief.

“I am pleased you wish to honor me,” she said. All of her awards are “special,” Parks said, and when asked if she had a message for USC students, she said:

“People can only take care of their own beliefs; each person must live their life as a model for others. Sometimes other people will support your beliefs.”

And sometimes the way you act on your beliefs can change history. Parks is revered for her simple act of courage on Dec. 1, 1955. But while the act of refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a crowded Montgomery bus was straightforward, the ramifications were not, both for her and the country.

“Our mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it,” Parks wrote in her 1994 book Quiet Strength. “I kept thinking about my mother and my grandparents, and how strong they were. I knew there was a possibility of being mistreated, but an opportunity was being given to me to do what I had asked of others.”

PARKS WAS arrested and jailed, a frightening situation for any African American in the Deep South at that time. Nevertheless, the local NAACP had been looking for a woman of “flawless” character to defy the Montgomery segregation laws, and they found her in Parks. When she was jailed, a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. helped launch a 13-month boycott of the city buses that ended when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation on buses.

“When you sat down, our people stood up,” a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident told Parks at a voter registration drive there in 1988 . “You are truly a woman of dignity and of destiny, of history and of hope.”

Parks, who had been a seamstress and secretary of the local branch of the NAACP, paid a steep personal cost for her act of defiance. She lost her job and faced such harassment from whites that she and her husband, Raymond, moved to Detroit in 1957.

In Michigan, Parks resumed her sewing and worked as a fund-raiser for the NAACP. In 1965, she was hired by U.S. Rep. John Conyers to manage his Detroit office. In 1977, Raymond Parks, a barber who was active in civil rights causes, died, but Rosa Parks remained active in the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In 1987, she organized the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development to provide leadership training for underprivileged youth. The next year, she retired from her job with Conyers after 23 years.

Parks has written four books about her life, most of them aimed at making her fellow Americans, especially young people, aware of the history of civil rights.

Among the dozens of honors that have come her way are the NAACP’s Springarn Medal (1970), the Martin Luther King Jr. Award (1980), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1996) and the International Freedom Conductor Award (1998).

The Rosa Parks Library and Museum is scheduled to open on the Montgomery campus of Troy State University on Dec. 1, 2000 – the 45th anniversary of the day Parks made history. The new library and museum, which will include an old city transit bus to show how public transportation was segregated through the 1950s, will open on the site of Park’s arrest.

Jon M. Huntsman
Doctor of Humane Letters,
Honoris Causa

by Sharon Stewart

JON M. HUNTSMAN deserves every good thing that anyone has ever said about him.

The owner of the world’s largest private chemical company has no intention of ever taking his company to the stock market because he’s more interested in giving millions of dollars to charity than he is in generating profits for shareholders.

On Friday morning, May 14, USC will honor Huntsman, founder and CEO of the Utah-based Huntsman Corp., with a doctor of humane letters degree.

“It’s a great honor to be recognized in this manner by a fine institution like USC,” Huntsman said. “I am deeply appreciative.”

USC President Steven B. Sample said “the world needs more people like Jon Huntsman. We are proud that he is a USC alumnus and honored that he will be accepting this doctoral degree. Mr. Huntsman’s philanthropy will benefit the nation and the world far into the future.”

A Horatio Alger success story, Huntsman is perhaps best known for developing the McDonald’s Styrofoam “clamshell” container.

A 1996 Houston Chronicle article describes Huntsman as a tough-talking entrepreneur who, in his youth, dug potatoes and performed odd jobs to help his father, a music teacher, and his mother make ends meet on their farm in Blackfoot, Idaho. He won a scholarship to the noted Wharton School of Business, married his childhood sweetheart and went to work at her uncle’s egg distribution company. It was there he scored his first entrepreneurial success.

“Noticing that the cardboard egg cartons leaked, Huntsman developed a plastic version,” the New York Times reported in 1994. “The business took off and was bought by Dow Chemical in 1965.”

Huntsman, who earned an MBA from USC in 1966, then formed his own business making plastic packaging, which led to his next major inventive and entrepreneurial coup: the plastic foam clamshell carton, which he later sold to McDonald’s.

His subsequent purchases – of Shell Oil Co.’s polystyrene business, German chemical producer Hoechst AG’s polystyrene plants in Virginia and Illinois, Texaco’s foundering chemical business and, last month, four chemical businesses from Imperial Chemical Industries of London – have made the Huntsman Corp. the largest private chemical company in the world, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

This latest agreement is subject to approval by the Federal Trade Commission, but no problems are foreseen and it is expected to be completed this summer. The deal brings Huntsman’s employee force up to 16,000 people in 34 countries.

But the rags-to-riches billionaire has ulterior motives for such acquisitions: No. 1 is his family, and No. 2 are the charities and causes in which he believes. The 61-year-old father of nine has placed six of his children in key decision-making positions within his company. He also has given $100 million to cancer research, built a concrete plant in Armenia to provide housing for 100,000 people left homeless by the 1988 earthquake there, and donated millions of dollars to Catholic charities.

A former associate administrator in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and a one-time staff secretary to Richard Nixon, Huntsman told the Houston Chronicle that the bigger his company becomes “the more [money] I can give away.”

IN BUSINESS, Huntsman has often gone against conventional wisdom, buying when others are selling and lying low when plants are humming and prices are high. But despite his global deal-making, Huntsman is a reserved, soft-spoken man. His life revolves around his church (he’s a devout Mormon), family, business and philanthropy.

He created the Huntsman Center for Environmental Research at Utah State University and the Huntsman Center for Global Competition and Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania. He also established an endowed chair in urological oncology at the University of Utah School of Medicine. And for the past seven years, 10 Utah educators have received $10,000 each from the Huntsman family for their dedication to education. Huntsman has said that there is no greater role in society than that of a teacher.

“What better way to show our gratitude and thanks to those who have enriched so many lives than to honor some of our state’s most outstanding teachers and administrators,” Huntsman said.

More stories about:

Honorary Degree Recipients

Top stories on USC News