Known as “Dr. T” by many of her colleagues and students, Lee Thornton led the way for women and black journalists.
Thornton, a journalism professor, was the first black female White House correspondent and first chair of this university’s Eaton Broadcast Center. She died Sept. 25 at age 71 after battling a brief illness.
The award-winning journalist joined the college’s faculty in 1997 after years of working as a CBS News White House correspondent, a CNN senior producer and an NPR host. Teaching was another phase in Thornton’s life, said Cassandra Clayton, a broadcast journalism lecturer.
“She had done it all,” Clayton said. “Once you’ve covered the White House and you’ve worked for the network, you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career, and she was interested in academia.”
At the journalism college, Clayton said, Thornton strove to create an ideal learning environment for students.
Along with teaching courses on television news reporting and production and documentary filmmaking, Thornton served on several campus committees. She participated in the university’s Research Development Council and was on the advisory board for the American Journalism Review and the board of a university alumni publication, Terp magazine. She also served on a panel that selected Banneker/Key scholarship recipients.
“She was a super hard worker,” multimedia journalism lecturer Chris Harvey said. “She was always the one volunteering to do things that she didn’t have to do … like volunteering to help somebody put together their packet to get tenure.”
After journalism Dean Tom Kunkel left the college in 2008, Thornton was asked to serve as interim dean. In her new role that year, she spurred the development of the college’s strategic plan, and the college earned recognition as a Carnegie-Knight News21 journalism school — one of 12 in the nation. At the same time, the college was undergoing an accreditation review.
“I know there were many, many long nights — many sleepless nights — lots of hours put into that, and she pulled it off,” Clayton said. “I’m sure she was quite, quite proud of that.”
Rusty Ray, a 2002 alumnus and morning anchor for WBTW-TV in Myrtle Beach, S.C., said he will never forget the woman who first let him anchor a news show.
“She will forever be a big name in the history of broadcasting in the country,” Ray said. “When she brought that credibility to College Park all those years ago, it meant a lot to the university, it meant a lot to the development of the college of journalism, and her leadership and the influence she had on students on a personal level will forever be a part of the legacy of students who had her and for the students currently in the college.”
Though she’s largely known for her accomplishments as a journalist, scholar and professor, Thornton also had hidden talents in cooking, decorating, style and humor, her colleagues and friends said.
“[She was] a full person who led a full, rich life, and someone who really enjoyed things — the finer things in life, and wanted her friends to enjoy the finer things too,” said Olive Reid, journalism associate dean.