Pitt Remembers, Mourns Loss of Dick Thornburgh (LAW ’57)

  • Dick Thornburgh in a gray suit and red tie shaking a man's hand behind a lectern
    Richard Lewis “Dick” Thornburgh lived a decorated life as a public servant. Thornburgh earned his law degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1957 and later returned to Pitt as a trustee emeritus. Thornburgh’s namesake lives on at the University of Pittsburgh through the Dick Thornburgh Forum in Law and Public Policy, established in 2007 in his honor. The forum provides an organizational framework for activities and programs based on Thornburgh’s papers, career, contributions and interests. It also gives annual namesake awards and honors to students. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Two men in blue suit jackets, one holding a trophy, and a woman in a black suit jacket
    As the 41st governor of Pennsylvania, Thornburgh oversaw emergency response efforts to the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant and helped coordinate funding for cleanup efforts. He also helped enact the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Thornburgh is pictured here with Director of the Institute of Politics Samantha Balbier and Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher as he receives the 2019 Elsie Hilliard Hillman Lifetime Achievement Award Excellence in Public Service. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • A man in a black suit jacket and a red tie poses with another person in a black suit jacket
    Thornburgh’s work toward the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has garnered attention for him since the bill became law. Here he poses here with Joyce Bender—the CEO, president and founder of Pittsburgh-based Bender Consulting Services, Inc., which provides disability employment expertise to employers—after a 2015 reception to honor him for his part in advancing the ADA. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • A man in a green sweater with his arm around a woman in a white shirt with a beige vest
    Thornburgh is survived by his wife, Ginny (pictured), sons John, David, Peter and Bill, six grandchildren, three great-granddaughters and a great-grandson. (Courtesy of the Thornburgh family)

The University of Pittsburgh mourns the loss of Richard Lewis “Dick” Thornburgh, who lived a decorated life as a public servant, law practitioner, governor and dear friend of the Pitt community. He died on Dec. 31, 2020. He was 88 years old.

Heralded for his leadership during the nation’s worst nuclear power meltdown and service as U.S. attorney general under two presidents, Thornburgh was a Pitt School of Law graduate and the namesake of the Dick Thornburgh Forum in Law and Public Policy, established in 2007 in his honor.

“The University of Pittsburgh is mourning the loss of one of our most beloved members, and our thoughts are with Ginny and her sons at this time. Dick Thornburgh stood in rare company as a leader, colleague and friend, and we are indisputably better off—as a university and a society—because of his incomparable integrity, ingenuity and dedication to serving others,” said Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

A Pittsburgh native, Thornburgh earned his law degree from Pitt in 1957, during which time he served as an editor of the University of Pittsburgh Law Review. After graduating, he joined the law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart (now K&L Gates LLP) and in 1969 was appointed by President Richard Nixon as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, where he earned a reputation for cracking down on organized crime.

He later served as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Criminal Division under President Gerald Ford. From 1979 to 1987, he served as the 41st governor of Pennsylvania, where he oversaw emergency response efforts to the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant and helped coordinate funding for cleanup efforts.

“His was a necessary and steady voice of calm in the midst of crisis,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf of Thornburgh. “Governor Thornburgh dedicated his life to public service, and his contributions to our commonwealth and our nation will not be forgotten. All of Pennsylvania mourns the loss of one of our great public servants.”

After leaving the governor’s office, Thornburgh served as the 76th U.S. Attorney General under U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush from 1988 to 1991, where he established strong ties with law enforcement agencies around the world to help combat drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorism and international white-collar crime.

The Legal Times said Thornburgh “built a reputation as one of the most effective champions that prosecutors have ever had” as attorney general.

Thornburgh also led efforts to enact the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

“In my estimation, the ADA has transformed American life, opening everyday opportunities for persons with disabilities while ushering in an era of independence, dignity and choice for more than 54 million Americans with disabilities,” said Thornburgh in a 2015 column published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Perhaps the most satisfying change the ADA has brought about is a change in attitude. As new generations of Americans have worked, lived and played side-by-side with persons with disabilities, the debilitating barriers of stereotypes and prejudices are disappearing. Participation in everyday American life has brought a sense of self-worth for persons with disabilities.”

Pitt legacy

At Pitt, Thornburgh was a trustee emeritus and served as chair of the board of visitors at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

The Dick Thornburgh Papers, a collection of materials related to Thornburgh’s time as Governor of Pennsylvania, were donated to Pitt in 1988, where they can be viewed on display at the Hillman Library in the Thornburgh Room.

“We at the University Library System mourn the loss of Gov. Dick Thornburgh, a friend of the library, whose collection documenting his distinguished and lengthy public service career we hold. His advocacy for equality, his lifelong commitment to scholarship and his belief in the rule of law have made America a stronger and more just nation. Our thoughts are with his wife Ginny and his family,” said Kornelia Tancheva, Hillman University librarian and director of the University Library System.

The University of Pittsburgh Press published his autobiography, “Where the Evidence Leads,” in 2003.

Finally, the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy provides an organizational framework for activities and programs based on Thornburgh’s papers, career, contributions and interests. It also gives annual namesake awards and honors to students, including the Dick Thornburgh Forum Disability Service Award, The Dick Thornburgh Prize for Legal Service and the Dick Thornburgh Undergraduate Summer Fellowships.

Thornburgh leaves behind his wife, Ginny, sons John, David, Peter and Bill, six grandchildren, three great-granddaughters and a great-grandson.

Tributes to Thornburgh

Media outlets around the country shared news of Dick Thornburgh’s death. Read tributes in Bloomberg, CNN, The New York Times, Penn Live, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Trib Live and The Washington Post.

Members of the Pitt community also shared their memories and condolences.

Mark A. Nordenberg, chancellor emeritus and director of Pitt’s Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy: “Few people in the history of our country can claim a leadership record equal to Dick Thornburgh’s. Not only did he hold an extraordinary array of critical positions, but he made distinctive contributions to the greater good in each of his roles. Neither the high positions that he held nor the important work that he did ever changed Dick’s approach to other people, though. Instead, he remained unfailingly kind, respectful, empathetic and unpretentious, providing an inspiring example of leadership not only through what he did but also by how he did it.”

Audrey Murrell, acting dean of the University Honors College: “The University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College community has lost a true champion and leader who worked tirelessly make the world a better place. Pitt Honors is proud to continue to celebrate his life through the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy, and the Thornburgh Family Lecture Series in Disability Law and Policy. And through the countless Pitt students and community members he inspired to pursue civic action on important public policy issues, his life’s work continues.”

Amy J. Wildermuth, dean of the School of Law: “Gov. Thornburgh leaves an extraordinary legacy as a first-class lawyer, a public servant and a gifted leader. What set him apart was his willingness to do the hard work, his calm under pressure, and his deep and unending commitment to the common good. Among the many highlights of his career, his efforts to shape the Americans with Disabilities Act remain notable for the profound impact the law has had and for how far ahead he was in what could, and should, be done for those with disabilities. His tireless advocacy to support individuals with disabilities—both seen and unseen—was a lifelong labor of love. I will always remember his grace, kindness and generosity, and particularly the tremendous support he provided to our law school and University. I am heartbroken by the loss and extend my deepest sympathies to Ginny and his family.”

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