By Sallie James
ATLANTIS — He was a devoted father, a savvy businessman and dedicated public servant, but those who best knew former Manalapan Commissioner Thomas Joseph Thornton Jr. say it was his zest for life that made him so unforgettable.
An avid storyteller with a quick wit, Mr. Thornton died June 20 at home in Atlantis from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 75.
“He was kind of the life of the party,” said his wife, Mary Ellen, whom he married in 1972 after they met in Manhasset, New York. “He was an extrovert with a good sense of humor.”
The disease progressed over about six years, slowing him greatly, but he never complained, she said.
Mr. Thornton served as a town commissioner from 2004-2010, and again from 2013-2015 before resigning to move to Atlantis. He was mayor pro-tem his last two years on the commission.
“He was wonderful. We just thought the world of Tom,” said Manalapan Town Clerk Lisa Petersen. “So kind, so gentle, very soft-spoken. Just a gentleman.”
Former Manalapan Mayor Kelly Gottlieb remembered Mr. Thornton as a dedicated public servant who loved what he did.
“He did a fabulous job. He was one of the ones who read his booklet every meeting. Very well respected and professional,” Gottlieb said. “He was soft-spoken, but he would always get what he wanted.”
Mr. Thornton was born on March 31, 1946, in Brooklyn, New York, to Catherine and Thomas Thornton. He attended St. Mary’s High School, followed by the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and was a die-hard Notre Dame fan for life.
He received his MBA at Long Island University in New York.
Mr. Thornton began his business career at W.R. Grace & Co., a large chemical company in Manhasset, where he worked as assistant to the company president, Peter Grace. He advanced to acquisitions and mergers, then became CEO of Orchard Supply Hardware in California.
He later served as CEO of Mr. Goodbuys, and of the gourmet food pioneer Dean and Deluca in New York City. He also did consulting for Campbell’s Soup, Fauchon, Lindt Chocolate, Junior’s Cheesecake and Kluge Winery.
He completed his career as CEO of Carmine’s in Palm Beach Gardens.
He had keen interest in gadgetry and gourmet foods, bringing home oddities like basil pesto in the early 1990s before anyone had ever heard of it, according to his son TJ Thornton.
“I had never tasted anything like it,” said TJ Thornton.
His two sons say their father’s love of storytelling is among their fondest memories.
“His was a life with a lot of accomplishments and one filled with pride. He had all sorts of stories,” said TJ. “Stories from a life well-lived. Some stories my mom wished that Ryan and I had never heard.
“But these stories weren’t just for entertainment. The stories heard and the time spent with Dad demonstrated to all of us his resilience, his humility, his intelligence, his amazingly broad interests and knowledge.”
Ryan Thornton remembered a devoted father who did everything he could so his kids could embrace their passions. In Ryan’s case, that was hockey.
“Hockey practice was early, the weather was cold, the rink was outdoors, they were on Saturday and Sunday mornings,” Ryan Thornton recalled. “But he still got me there on time, every time, and he was not only there, but he was present — that’s a big difference. Making new friends in the stands or cheering me along, most certainly embarrassing me with compliments the whole ride home.
“Dad shared his life with us, he was our entertainment, he loved to make us laugh, he loved a good spotlight,” Ryan Thornton added.
Thomas Thornton is survived by his wife; his two sons; and his grandchildren, Alice Marie and Sam Thomas Thornton. Services were held July 16 at St. Edward Catholic Church in Palm Beach.
Memorial contributions can be made to the Parkinson’s Foundation of Florida, 200 SE First St., Suite 800, Miami, FL 33131.