Cal Thornton, Retired News Service Executive, Dies At 91

H.C. (Cal) Thornton, a well-known figure in the American news service business in the 1970s and 1980s, died on Feb. 11 at Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River, Massachusetts. He was 91 years old.

His son, Peter, said he passed away peacefully after a week of hospitalization with mild coronary disease. His daughter, Katie, had been reading to him during the night and was holding his hand at the time of his death.

A native of Lynchburg, Virginia, Thornton began his news service career as a cub reporter for United Press after studying philosophy at the University of Chicago for two years. He eventually moved to the business side, serving as a regional sales executive for United Press International out of Minneapolis when UP acquired the Hearst-owned International News Service in 1958 to become UPI.

Thornton’s UPI career later took him to Boston, where he served several years as Northeast Division Manager covering New England and New York State, and back to Chicago as Central Division Manager for the Midwest. He was promoted in 1971 to vice president of sales for the wire service, helping grow the company into a major domestic and foreign competitor to the larger Associated Press.

Thornton joined the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service as sales director in 1977, and within 10 months was promoted to general manager. He eventually became president and editorial director of the news service, spreading its influence across Asia and Europe as well as in the United States.

John Payne, who worked with Thornton at the LA Times-Washington Post News Service, said he “not only built the service domestically, but made it into an international force and presence as well. He was a remarkable manager, always fully engaged in all aspects of the service.”

Thornton retired from the Washington-based news service in 1988, moving to the Buzzards Bay area of Massachusetts, where he enjoyed kayaking and his favorite pastime, golf. He lived the last 25 years in Westport, Massachusetts, working occasionally for several years at a fishing bait and tackle shop in the town.

Known for his wit and intrapersonal skills in a hard-nail, competitive industry, Thornton thrived on advancing the careers of the journalists who worked with him, many of whom went on to success at newspapers, broadcasting and public relations.

“Cal Thornton had an ineffable knack for spotting unrecognized talent and bringing it to full fruition,” said Bill Ketter, who worked with Thornton in Chicago and New York City. “He was the type of mentor and coach young journalists yearn for – knowledgeable, caring and collaborative.”

Ketter pointed to his experience as an example. He said Thornton was instrumental in his becoming a division manager for UPI in Boston, and then promoting him to vice president of broadcast services in New York, Ketter later moved on to become editor of the Quincy, Massachusetts, Patriot-Ledger for 20 years, chairman of the Boston University Journalism Department, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Lawrence, Massachusetts, Eagle-Tribune. He currently is senior vice president for Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., a company that owns and operates 120 newspapers in 23 states.

“Cal remained a close friend and adviser throughout my career,” said Ketter. “Our families used to vacation together when our children were young, and we often sailed together on Massachusetts Bay and Buzzards Bay after he retired. For years we had a ritual of annually going to a New England casino, with the understanding if either of us won more than we started out with, that person bought dinner at a first-class restaurant and a robust round of martinis. I will miss him as a counselor, as a dear friend and as a terrific human being.”

Wes Pippert of the University of Missouri’s Washington journalism program, remembered Thornton during his early days in Minneapolis. Pippert was 20 years old and three days out of the University of Iowa when he went to work in the Minneapolis bureau with Thornton.

“More than anyone else he epitomized for me the best of UPI,” said Pippert, recalling a time Pippert’s brother died in an automobile accident and receiving a warm-hearted note of condolence from Thornton at a time of great distress.

Pippert also described Thornton as a great story teller with a dry sense of humor that matched his love for dry martinis.  Pippert said when he transferred to the UPI bureau in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to replace the bureau manager who had decided to become a priest, Thornton paused and replied, “Well, he could have gone to AP.”

Jim Wieck, a longtime UPI news executive, characterized Thornton as “dignified and unflappable” and a man of his word,  recalling that he once promised Wieck he would get him an overdue raise once the temporary national price and wage freeze of 1971 ended.

“The day President Nixon announced he was lifting the freeze, Cal called me, almost immediately, and said he’d gotten my raise through – and doubled it,” said Wieck.

Allan Priaulx, another former colleague, said Thornton gave him the break of his young career in the 1960s with a series of transfers and promotions, including assignments in Honolulu and Paris. “Cal was terrific,” said Priaulx. “Very wise, thoughtful and a good man and friend.”

Bob Page, vice president and general manager of UPI in New York during Thornton’s stint there, described Thornton as “one of the brightest guys whom I knew and/or worked with in my 20 years with UPI. Cal was one of the best salesman we ever had.”

Bernie Caughey, who worked with Thornton in Boston for several years, said he was “a quiet man of great compassion, patience, understanding and wit.” One of Caughey’s fondest memories involved a fishing experience off the Connecticut Coast that included sipping martinis and catching bluefish. Later that night, Thornton professed an expertise at scaling the catch.

“Scales flew off the fish in every direction – all over the kitchen,” recalled Caughey. “The floor, ceiling, lights, walls, stove, sink, refrigerator, counter. And, of course, all over Cal. Finally, I took them outside and grilled them. They were delicious. Washed down with, what else, another martini.”

Thornton is survived by his longtime companion Sally Hand, and daughters Mary E. Thornton of Westport, Massachusetts; Amy R. Balin of Brattleboro, Vermont; Jennifer T. Correia of West Simsbury, Connecticut; Kathleen T. Saunders of El Segundo, California, and son Peter C. Thornton, a resident of England. Other survivors include nine grandchildren, two great-great grandchildren and his former wife, Audrey L. Thornton.

A memorial service will be held on Aug. 11 in Westport, Massachusetts. For additional information, contact potterfuneralservice.com.

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