Friday, March 27, 2015

George Thornton: Jumping into life

(Ninth in a series)
      George "Petey" Thornton came to Louisiana Tech University in the fall of 1968 as a basketball player ... and a high jumper. He loved both pursuits, but high jumping would have to wait a year.
      He lettered four times in each sport, but no question he was much more successful individually in track and field.
      Tech basketball coach Scotty Robertson would not allow him to high jump after his freshman  season, wanting him to use the off-season to develop his basketball skills. But in his second year at school, he joined Coach Jimmy Mize's track team, although he got a late start and limited practice.
       In four years, he finished second twice in the Gulf States Conference meet, clearing 6-10 in 1970 in only his second meet of the season and 6-6 in 1971. Tech switched conferences and he won the Southland Conference title in 1972 with a 6-9 jump, using the fairly new "Fosbury Flop" technique from about the mid-point of that track season.
       Because he needed a fifth year in school to earn his degree, and his basketball eligibility was done, he had the 1972-73 school year to work on his high jumping. It paid off.
George Thornton "flopped" his way to two conference
high jump championships, 1972 and 1973
       He did not break the school record (7 feet) held by Tommy Stinson then, but based on consistency -- six jumps of 6-10 or slightly better that season -- he became the best high jumper in school history to that point.
       "I'm very happy about it now," he told me for my April 1973 column on him in The Shreveport Times. "If I had had to come back for my fifth year and not been able to compete, it would have been a real sad year. I'm an athlete, I want to participate."
       He again won the Southland title by clearing 6-10 1/2, and helping Tech win the conference championship. He also qualified to compete in the NCAA Championships in Baton Rouge that summer, but did not place.
       His desire to compete in track, taking time away from off-season basketball work, might have caused some difficulty with Robertson, who -- as mentioned in the previous blog piece -- could be a controlling coach.
       "We didn't have the closeness we had before," George said a couple of weeks ago, "and I think that did it."
       But he credits Mize, the gentlemanly longtime Tech assistant football/head track and cross-country coach who is 98 and living with Mrs. Mize in Baton Rouge, as a positive influence.
Tech track and field coach Jimmy Mize holds the 1973 Southland Conference
championship trophy; George Thornton is at far right, bottom; longtime Tech
athletic council chairman Harold Smolinki (left) made the presentation
       "Coach Mize allowed me to do the best I could," he said. "He didn't have the way to show me better technique; I don't think many track coaches then could specialize in a lot of events. But he gave the chance to travel to other cities and states, and I saw a lot of other athletes perform. It was a great experience."
       And it helped lead to a brief coaching career.        
       After he graduated from Tech in 1973, Thornton returned home to Kirkwood, Mo., and was a teacher-coach at the high school from which he graduated five years earlier (he was inducted into the school's athletic Hall of Fame). He was the head cross-country country and assisted in track and field and wrestling, and he enjoyed it all.
      He wanted to coach basketball there, but the job didn't come open. To increase his financial status, after a couple of years, he moved into the insurance business and eventually started his own insurance agency.
      Then came the metal services business -- "you can make money on stuff people throw away," he said -- and it keeps him and Judith busy. Arranging time for a lengthy interview with him, and even a second shorter one, took a little doing.
      Life has had "its ups and downs," including the tragic death of a brother in Kirkwood and the recent death of another brother. But there remains a large family and "the good thing about playing sports," he says, "is that it taught me to keep pushing, to work hard, and you will overcome, and things get better."
      He's returned to Ruston, and Tech, a couple of times -- once for an alumni basketball game/reunion, one for a banquet honoring Scotty Robertson.
       He remains fondly thought of by those of us who were at Tech in the late 1960s.
      "Petey was a great guy. ... I loved Petey," Buddy Davis wrote to me. "He was such an upbeat, nice guy who was always smiling and happy. He was the kind of person that if you had a downer of a day or whatever, his disposition could lift you up."
       "I can't say anything but good things about him," Robertson said in 1973. "He always did what was asked of him, and he contributed."
      "I think I've accomplished a lot of things," Thornton said then. "I've learned respect for a lot of people and I think I'm respected by a lot of people. They know me when they see me and they speak to me. Everything is OK."
      I would say, 42 years later, that for Louisiana Tech's trailblazing black athlete, it's still OK.


  1. From Jim Shaw: I was glad to hear about Petey through your articles. They really take me back to the day; I always look forward to hearing about Tech and "back then." As I look at the photo with Coach Mize (love the man and his wife) I believe this to be the year after I left (1973). I see speedster Bubba from White Oak(?); David Crow from Ruston; Wesley Smith from East Texas; John Allen from Monroe; Ricky Joe Stubbs from Queen City Texas; also lower in photo, the weightman from Texarkana; and a speedster from Epps, Texas. I want to tell you that these guys were over-achievers because we all wanted to please and honor Coach Jimmy Mize..

  2. From Maxie Hays: If you look just above Coach Mize's head in the picture, you will see Larry Shanklin from Mansfield. Larry won second place in the 3000 M run that night behind McSweeney from McNeese to win that Southland Conference meet for Coach Mize.
    Larry would not sign a scholarship because of his religious beliefs so he could work out when he could with Arthur Botterell (sp) who was Coach Mize's graduate assistant. Arthur was from Ireland and ran track for USL.
    Larry was the best high school distance runner in Louisiana in 1972. I have the results of every meet he ran in that year, including the All-American meet he ran in that summer at LSU.
    Joe May offered Larry the world if he would sign with LSU, but Larry was so devoted to his religion that he would not tie himself down to a scholarship anywhere. And he got offers from everywhere.
    Larry could run on Saturday after dark so that was when Coach Mize scheduled the 3000 M run in that meet. His points in that race won the meet for Tech.
    I so enjoyed the story on Petey. What a blessing he was for Tech athletics.