Merrill College Honors the Memory of Dr. Lee Thornton

Merrill College Honors the Memory of Dr. Lee Thornton

ZC4U0886 Lee ThorntonUpdate: A Memorial Service for Dr. Lee Thornton was held at 3 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013 at the Memorial Chapel on the campus of the University of Maryland. Download the program.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Dr. Lee Thornton, a trailblazing and award-winning journalist, news producer and educator who served as the first Eaton Broadcast Chair and as interim dean for the Merrill College – passed away Sept. 25 after a brief illness. She was 71.

“Lee Thornton was a journalism and communications scholar. She was a broadcast journalist. She excelled at both,” said Dean Lucy Dalglish. “And she could move back and forth in those fields seamlessly and be spectacularly good at both things.”

“Dr. T”  brought her years of experience working for local and Network TV — at CBS, CNN and NPR — to Merrill College in 1997 and quickly became known for her  “thorough yet caring” style of teaching. She taught television news reporting and production and documentary filmmaking as well as graduate courses. She overhauled and expanded the student news programs from ten minutes to 30 minutes. Over the years, her Merrill students won in excess of 80 national and regional awards and citations. Many of her students went on to successful careers as journalists.

She was also the creator, researcher, writer, producer and host for “Front & Center,” an award-winning series of in-depth interviews with journalists produced by the Merrill College’s cable station, UMTV. It was shown locally, nationally on Research TV and internationally on WorldNet.

“She was really something special,” says former Merrill College Dean Tom Kunkel. “She was a great, great teacher. It was really a treat to watch Lee with her students.” He says she was tough but had great affection for her students.

When Dean Kunkel left to take the presidency of St. Norbert College in 2008, Thornton was asked to serve as interim dean – the first female dean of the college and the second African American. While in that role, she oversaw the development of the college’s strategic plan, and the college became a Carnegie Knight News 21 journalism school, one of only 12 so designated in the nation.

Thornton_StudentsThroughout her tenure at the University of Maryland, she became an integral part of campus life. After retiring from the Merrill College, she was asked to serve as the Interim Associate Provost for Equity and Diversity in 2011. As such, she was responsible for early implementation of the university’s diversity strategic plan. Following her retirement from the University, Professor Emerita Thornton returned to join the UMD Graduate School as Ombuds Officer for Graduate Students.

Thornton served on numerous campus committees, including panels that selected the prestigious Banneker Key scholarship winners. She served on the Research Development Council, the advisory board for the American Journalism Review and on the board of Terp Magazine

Thornton was recognized as University Woman of the Year in 2011.

“Not only did Merrill College turn to her time and time again, the entire university did so,” says Dalglish. “So this entire campus is in shock today.”

Watch the Video Tribute to Lee Thornton when she retired in 2010:


Merrill Faculty: Remembering Lee Thornton for her Professionalism and Caring

Merrill College takes pride in having faculty members that have been professionals in journalism.  Lee Thornton, was a critical mentor in helping me make that transition from the newsroom to the classroom.  As terrific a journalist as she was, she was also an outstanding teacher, who genuinely cared for her students and her colleagues.  I turned to her many times for advice, solace – and always a good laugh.

-Cassandra Clayton
Lecturer, Broadcast Journalism
Former NBC News Correspondent

 Lee Thornton stood out as an educator and consummate journalist who had a path-breaking career at CBS news.  An elegant figure who insisted that her students perform at their highest levels, Dr.T., as the students called her, made a lifelong impression on the students in her broadcasting classes. She assisted many of them in getting jobs in broadcasting and followed their careers with great interest. They loved her – and she loved them.

-Professor Emerita Maurine Beasley
Author, “Women of the Washington Press”

“What a special special person: smart, gifted, funny. A great professional, a dear colleague, and one of the best teachers I ever saw.”
– Professor Carl Sessions Stepp

“Lee was a thoughtful, engaging and inspiring professor, who with kindness pushed her students to experiment and grow. She cared deeply about excellent teaching, and was a a tremendous mentor.”
– CNS Annapolis Bureau Chief Jackie Incollingo

“Lee was an amazing teacher, journalist and friend, who served as a role model for so many of us. I loved her style, her wit, her warmth, and her work ethic. And I loved that she cared so deeply about each of us. Her legacy is worldwide — in all the journalism careers she helped launch.”

– Chris Harvey
Multimedia Lecturer / Director of Assessments

“Lee Thornton was truly a credit to the Philip Merrill College and the University of Maryland.   She was smart, warm and the  most welcoming person and colleague anyone could know. How sad and depressing to hear  the news of her passing.   But what a joy to have known  and worked with her.”

–George Solomon
Director, Povich Sports Center

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  1. Melanie Johnson
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Hello all,
    My name is Melanie Johnson and I attend Howard University. I would like to know if I could quote Nikkee Porcaro and Steve Fink for a piece remembering Dr. Thornton for Howard University. I think your responses will make my article a well rounded piece by having a diverse group of people represented that Dr. Thornton touched. Please feel free to comment or email me letting me know your response. Thank you so much.

  2. Bevin M. Parkins
    Posted October 2, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I developed great admiration for Lee Thornton from the first time when I viewed her reading the news; on the CBS Morning News with John Hart. Later, I watched her broadcasts from the White House, and I also watched her week-end network news broadcasts.” She was professional, classy, confident and most remarkable.”
    During 2009, pursuant to my request, we met at UMD. She was very kind and receptive. Subsequently, she has been most helpful and inspiring to me as a writer and documentary producer.
    I will always remember Lee Thornton for her character, personality, professionalism and kindness.” May God bless her.”

  3. Barbara Semedo
    Posted October 2, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    It is so nice to read such wonderful tributes to Dr. Lee Thornton. I know how much she enjoyed her time at UMD and working with the next generation of budding journalists. I’m sure she shared a catalogue of stories and advice with them they will hopefully treasure as some of the best they ever receive.

    Many of us knew Lee as one of the role models for African American women pursuing journalism careers in the early 70’s. She and Renee Pouissant are the two former CBS correspondents I watched and admired when I began my career in local TV news. I feel privileged and honored to say that Lee became a good friend. I will always remember her for her honesty, her laugh and incredible class. She will be missed by her friends. Love you Lee. We will toast you soon. RIP.

  4. Posted September 29, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Dear Lee–Beautiful and classy, saucy and sweet, practical and wise; kind mentor to so many students and faculty. You left us much too soon. How we miss you, and always will.

  5. Marlene Cimons
    Posted September 28, 2013 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    I knew Lee, of course, from the college (she awarded me my doctoral degree, in fact, when she was serving as interim dean). But beyond that, and more importantly, I knew her outside the college as a longtime neighbor and fellow dog lover. I remember how besotted she was with her `Teddy’ and how bereft she was at his loss. I helped persuade her to get a new dog and she fell passionately in love with Newbie. I even sent her to my vet. She used to walk him early in the mornings, when I was out running with my lab, a route that took me past her house. Hershey and I got into the habit of stopping (Hershey was crazy for Newbie, and they always would do their sniffing each other’s you-know-what routine) and Lee and I would gossip for a few minutes. I hadn’t seen her at all in recent months, but I didn’t think anything of it, as I figured maybe retirement inspired her to sleep a little later, or maybe she was at her other home in North Carolina. I only found out this summer from our shared plumber that she was very ill, and that the prognosis was grim. He told me she didn’t want anyone to know, and I respected this. But it broke my heart. This is such unspeakably sad news. The college has taken more than its share of losses in recent years, almost too much to bear. I will miss her, but take some comfort in imagining that she is once again with her beloved Teddy.

  6. Dave Kosin
    Posted September 28, 2013 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    I only took one class with Dr. Thornton, but it was a memorable one. Being a reality TV addict finally came in handy when I and a few others in our section realized that if we got Dr. T started talking about American Idol, we could kill a half hour, easy. She “fell for it” every time (and I put that in quotes because even at the time, I knew full well Dr. T would never truly FALL FOR something so juvenile), and it endeared us to her ever after. Once I graduated, Dr. T and I stayed in touch. Every time I shared an update on my career, she’d tell me how proud she was of me. For four years, we emailed every week to snark about American Idol, and in one of those emails she said that we must be the only professor/former student tandem in the world to do such a thing.

    I don’t know if that’s accurate, but I always liked to think it was. There was, is and never shall be anyone quite like Dr. Thornton. She was an excellent motivator, a brilliant journalist, a great teacher and–most importantly–an absolutely remarkable woman. The world is a little worse off without her, and she will most definitely be missed.

  7. Posted September 28, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Lee Thornton was among a handful of the most generous colleagues I have ever had the good fortune to know and with whom I’ve worked. Over the years, we served on many campus committees together, and she was kind, hard-working, tough-minded, and inspiring. I am deeply saddened by this loss, and also deeply grateful that she was/is a part of our community. RIP dear Lee. With love and admiration, MNS

  8. Max Cacas
    Posted September 28, 2013 at 1:13 am | Permalink

    I first knew Lee as a “friend of a friend”, and came to find out we had not only Merrill in common, but also stints at NPR and CBS. Once I began my short stint as an adjunct, she was kind and generous with advice on teaching and navigating the shoals of academia, and was very much a mentor, as she has been with countless others. I passed along word of her passing to our colleagues at NPR, and they asked me to share this on-air rememberance of her that aired on Friday’s “All Things Considered”. Rest in peace, Lee…

  9. Steve Fink
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Dr. T was the most influential professor I was privileged to learn from during my years in the j-school. No one could tell it like it is better than she could. She once made me wear my bulky leather jacket over my shirt in the anchor chair because she hated what I was wearing. That was Dr. T. She was one of the special ones who we never forget, and I will certainly never forget her. Thank you for everything, Dr. T, I am proud to be a journalist because of you.

  10. Posted September 27, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    I’ll never forget working so hard on a package about a homeless musician. I had to fight with police on the street, continually track down this transient man….it was a lot of work. Imagine my frustration when we viewed the footage and found my partner and I hadn’t white balanced correctly. Instead of throwing it all out, Dr. Thornton not only had the idea to make it sepia toned to fix that and make it fit in with the artsy theme of the piece, but to actually enter it into a contest because of its uniqueness. While it didn’t win, I was always impressed with Dr. T’s ability to give it to you straight while still offering helpful fixes to young journalists. She will be missed.

  11. Kevin B. Anderson
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Lee Thornton will truly be missed. Every time I would see Lee she had that great big beautiful smile that lit up the room. She was one of my first friends on campus. Lee was a mentor and confidant. I will truly miss her. I know God has taken her by the hand and has welcomed her into the “Kingdom”!

  12. Posted September 27, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Thornton was a gift to those of us who had dreams of making it “big” in TV news. She was a stern hand, a winning smile, a sharp remark, a bit of constructive criticism, and a proud acknowledgement of a job well-done when you desired it more than anything. Dr. Thornton taught me so much about how to represent myself on-air and how to be prepared to be professional and full of “Personality” all at the same time. She drove me to try new things, and presented me with opportunities that helped shape the journalist, the news man, and the man I am today. God bless you, Dr. Thornton, and thank you for making your mark on many, many generations of journalists, viewers, and students.

  13. Grace Githaiga
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Fare thee well Dr. Thornton. You inspired me during my fulbright/humprey year at UMD. I will never forget the time you gave me including the special invites to meetings and the farewell lunch when I had to return home. You will forever remain special.
    Grace Githaiga, Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet).

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