Ruebel Funeral Home

6313 West Markham Street, Little Rock

Phone: 501-666-0123

Ray Thornton

Little Rock, AR

1928 - 2016

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Published: April 15, 2016

Ray Thornton, a former Arkansas Congressman, Supreme Court Justice, Attorney General and President of UA and ASU, died Wednesday, April 13, 2016. Ray was born July 16, 1928, in Conway. His parents were educators: Raymond Thornton, Sr., the superintendent of schools in Grant County, and Wilma Elizabeth Stephens Thornton, a teacher for a half-century. He was reared in the Church of Christ, which his father established in Grant County and served as a Deacon. Always a bright child, Ray repurposed his mother's sewing machine motor to power his bicycle, inventing his own motorscooter. After becoming bored with the repetitiveness of long division problems, he once wrote on his half-completed homework, "All the rest are just the same."

Ray graduated from Sheridan High School at age sixteen. He took classes at Arkanas State Teachers College that summer with his mother, then enrolled at the University of Arkansas. At the encouragement of his father, he took the Reserve Officers Training School examination to defray college expenses. His score on the exam entitled him to a full scholarship, and he chose Yale University, graduating in 1950 with a degree in international relations and engineering. He then studied law at the University of Texas for one year before receiving his commission in the United States Navy and reporting for duty during the Korean War. Ray saw combat on the aircraft carrier Philippine Sea.

At the end of the war, Ray returned home to Arkansas to attend the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville. He was a loyal member of Sigma Chi fraternity, a Significant Sig, and remained close to many fellow Sigma Chi's throughout his life. His first foray into politics came when he ran for and was elected president of the University of Arkansas student body, after campaigning by playing his guitar and singing on building steps around campus, calling himself "Cowboy Ray".

In 1956, he married Betty Jo Mann of Sheridan. He often recalled the night he fell in love, when Betty walked into a social event at the old Marion Hotel in a yellow dress and took his breath away. They subsequently had three daughters, Nancy Thornton, Mary Jo Hays, and Stephanie Fain. Ray officed his law practice in the Urquhart Building on East Capitol Avenue, where he represented clients including Stephens Inc. and Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company (Arkla), companies developed by his legendary uncle Witt Stephens, his mother's brother and his mentor.

He was most pleased with his success representing Allied Telephone Company (later Alltel) in a 1965 dispute with Southwestern Bell that helped lay the foundation for Allied's growth and development. As he told it, Southwestern Bell had denied Allied the use of the Bell lines, and the court ruled in favor of Allied on the basis of antitrust and monopoly issues. Ray's win opened the door for Allied/Alltel to become a multi-state telephone provider.

Not being content with just practicing law, Ray worked with Arkla employee Ed Handy to design a small fuel-efficient automobile with a truck bed. They called it the Handy-wagon. Arkla ordered 100 of the vehicles at $1,250 each to use for their service routes, but large scale public-market production plans were scrapped because of cost. Soon after, as embargoes caused gasoline prices to soar, Asian-manufactured vehicles flooded into United States markets, which caused some second-guessing about the decision not to mass-produce the Handy-wagon. Ray also was a licensed pilot with commercial certification, and he especially liked to frighten his friends by executing the hammerhead stall in his aerobatic Maule aircraft.

In 1969, Ray confided to his uncle Witt Stephens that he wanted to run for Attorney General of Arkansas. Mr. Witt advised Ray that he could make more money, and perhaps do more good, in the private sector. He further admonished him that if he did run for office, he should never use politics for personal gain. Ray respected Mr. Witt's advice and subsequently removed himself from any future income from the Stephens family. Ray was elected Attorney General in 1970 and served one term. In 1972, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served the Fourth Congressional District for three terms.

As a congressman in the 1970s, Ray chaired the Subcommittee on Science, Research and Technology. One significant accomplishment of that committee was the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which helped distribute government research grants more evenly across America and among state universities. His personalized license plate still reads "EPSCOR." He was better known for his service on the House Judiciary Committee, in which role he hand-drafted the original articles of impeachment ultimately leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August of 1974. Throughout his public career, beginning during his service as Arkansas Attorney General, Ray had a strong history of hiring women and persons of color as top staff members. He was easy to work for, although the work wasn't easy. When staffers erred, he would kindly remind them that "experience is what you get for not having it when you need it in the first place."

Ray left the House in 1978 to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. He referred to that election as "my retirement from politics with the consent of a majority of Arkansans." It was then that he began to make his mark on higher education in Arkansas. Serving as executive director of the Joint Educational Consortium in Arkadelphia, he forged a bond between Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University to share resources to benefit their students. In 1980, he was chosen as President of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, by the ASU Board of Trustees. During this time, he chaired the National Institutes of Health Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, the only layman among scientists, some of whom were Nobel Laureates. He authored a book about his maternal grandfather A.J. Stephens: As Remembered By His Family, published in 1983. Papa Stephens, as he called him, inspired and encouraged his grandson's interest in politics.

In 1984, when the President's position at the University of Arkansas suddenly opened, the UA Board of Trustees hired Ray, forgoing a national search. At the Fayetteville campus, Ray championed the drive to preserve the oldest campus landmark, Old Main, which now houses the Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences. The successes of his Matrix plan to combine resources of all five of the UA campuses as well as the Division of Agriculture can be seen throughout the UA System today. Ray confided in friends that being President of the University of Arkansas System—working with the Trustees, Chancellors, and Faculty—was like flying an airplane using only the trim tabs.

In 1990 Ray left UA to make a successful run for the U.S. Congress as the representative for Arkansas' Second Congressional District, where he was born. He joked he was leaving higher education for Congress because he had "grown tired of all the politics." During the six year period of those three terms, he once again served on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee before winning a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee in 1993.

During his tenure in the 1990s, he also served on the House Government Operations Committee, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, and as a member of Appropriations, the Subcommittees on Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA, and Related Agencies, as well as on VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies (NASA, NSF, EPA, SBA, etc.). Ray believed that central Arkansas had the potential to become a world-class biotechnology research corridor and worked tirelessly in Congress to nurture that potential. In addition to support of EPSCoR during both tenures of Congress, Ray focused his committee work on promoting and building the research and technology development capacity of institutions in central Arkansas that employed a large number of constituents with high-paying jobs, including: the John L. McClellan VA Hospital, UAMS, Arkansas Children's Hospital, and the National Center for Toxicological Research in Pine Bluff. NCTR is the only FDA research center located outside of D.C. metro — collocated at the Pine Bluff Arsenal, which housed and was tasked with safely destroying America's chemical/biological weapons stockpile throughout the 1990's & 2000's — and is a global resource for collaboration, training, and innovation in support of improving public health. Further, he aggressively lobbied through backchannels of Congress against the relocation of C-130 transports from LRAFB, which could have weakened the base's mission at a time of post-Cold War base closure recommendations. To this day, LRAFB remains one of the largest employers in central Arkansas and has played a key role in every combat mission since the Gulf War in 1991. He also spearheaded funding for a pipeline from Greers Ferry Lake to Mayflower, and eastward to Austin and Ward, to provide clean water to more than 20,000 individuals and their business communities along the route when their old FHA wells began to fail.

This behind-the-scenes work at the Capitol dovetailed with his central purpose of providing the strongest constituency service resources for the people in the eight counties he represented, and other Arkansas individuals and businesses, often left mired in red tape through no fault of their own. He instructed his staff that the only power some government agencies have is the power to say "no," and it was his office's job to make them say "yes." Although this uncommon and fierce pro-active service to citizens was not widely reported, the individuals and business he helped were legion. These myriad small successes in personal service to people in need were perhaps his proudest accomplishments.

Ray enjoyed his service in Congress, but became disheartened by the partisanship and lack of civility that emerged following the 1994 elections. In 1996, he announced his bid for a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court. He drew no opposition, and served eight years. As an Associate Justice, Ray achieved a consensus resulting in every new Arkansas death penalty case being automatically reviewed by the Supreme Court. After his retirement from the Supreme Court, Ray was the first Public Service Fellow for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law.

Known for his strong work ethic and his consistently courtly behavior, Ray's unwavering courtesy and deference to others were disarming to those he knew well, as well as total strangers. Journalist Steve Barnes once remarked that he wished, just once, Congressman Thornton would kick a trash can across the room and shout an expletive. Not likely. With his business and legal credentials and successes, Ray's elections should have been driven by voters who admired his strong intellect. To his dismay (and his staff's amusement), his polling consistently showed that voters chose him because he was "such a nice man." Those same polls always showed that his political negatives were in the single digits, a virtually unheard-of statistic. His bumper stickers, visible for many years on Arkansas vehicles, read "I'm for Ray!" His professional papers, photographs, and other mementoes of his many years of public service were donated to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where they are held in the Special Collections Division of the University of Arkansas Library.

About him, his friend and colleague Justice Robert L. Brown said, "No one has been more dedicated to public service than Ray Thornton. Wonderfully committing himself to a legislative career, academics, and finally the Arkansas Supreme Court, he has done as much, if not more, than anyone to mold the future of Arkansas.

When I served with him as a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, I learned the secret of his success. It was not only his ethic of hard work, but a well-honed sense of fairness and irrepressible good humor."

Ray often mentioned a guiding principle in his life: "It's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit."

Ray is survived by his wife of 60 years, Betty Jo, his three daughters, his five grandchildren, Melody Woodard Epley, Jessica Bunch, Thomas Hays, Edward Hays, and Forrest Fain, four great-grandchildren, and his sister and brother-in-law, Betty and Evan Ulrey of Searcy, as well as the large extended Thornton and Stephens families and a host of former staff members who remain grateful for the opportunities he gave them. He was preceded in death by his grandson Micah Shannon "Steele" Fowler.

Services are scheduled Tuesday, April 19, at 1 p.m. at the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ at 10900 Rodney Parham Road in Little Rock, followed by fellowship with the family at the church. Preceding will be a private burial at Philadelphia Cemetery in Prattsville. Arrangements by Ruebel Funeral Home,

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