Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Petey" Thornton: No flop, then or now

  (Sixth in a series)
     It really hasn't been that long ago. But the significant events of 1968 fade with age.
     So it is with the athletic career of George "Petey" Thornton of Louisiana Tech University.
     He came out of Kirkwood, Mo., with credentials as the top big-class basketball player and one of the top high jumpers in his state. In the fall of 1968, he became Louisiana Tech's first black athlete on scholarship.
     Before the era of integrated athletics in the Deep South, it was an unwritten rule that a school's first black athlete "had to be a good one."
     Actually, it has been that long ago.
     I wrote those first four paragraphs to lead my column in The Shreveport Times on April 26, 1973. The headline: "Petey" Thornton No Flop.
     So, yes, the events have faded with age ... 42 years later. Because I thought of the trailblazing athletes at my schools when integration in athletics happened, I revisited the story of Melvin Russell at Shreveport's Woodlawn High School (previous four blog pieces) and now it's on to George Thornton at Louisiana Tech.
     Perhaps the "had to be a good one" phrase I wrote in 1973 was politically incorrect. Maybe I could have expressed that differently; didn't mean for it to be racially insensitive. Point is, the transition needed to be as smooth as it possibly could be.
George and Judith Thornton (photo from Judith's Facebook
page taken early in 2014)
     Thanks to George and a lot of other people, it was.
      For the first time in those 42 years -- and I am bothered to admit this because I should have done this years ago -- I talked to George recently, and in fact, interviewed him about those times and his life since.
      He remains the upbeat, friendly, soft-spoken and poised young man he was in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he was a black-athlete pioneer at Tech and a darned successful athlete at that.
      He has some stories, recollections of those times -- a mostly positive experience and, yes, a few regrets. But those have more to do with his own athletic career than any racial or social overtones concerning Tech and the Deep South.
       "I enjoyed Louisiana Tech," he told me in our talk. "I learned a lot, plus the education I received. I met so many good people there, and they treated me well."
       The education meant a B.A. degree in education, which he earned in five years, and an education in life because of the path he traveled.
        As for basketball, he was a four-year letterman but never a "star," a swing player between guard and forward at 6-foot-5 and 185 pounds, and not a starter until his senior season when he averaged 12.0 points and 7.2 rebounds a game.
         But he was a solid contributor to a conference championship in his sophomore season and then played on two of Tech's greatest teams -- with records of 23-5 and 23-3. Neither of those teams won conference titles because they were edged out by the notorious University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL) teams. (More on that later.)
         In his last three seasons, everyone knew the team's star was the second black scholarship player in the program, the hugely talented 6-10 forward Mike Green. (More on him later, too.)
          "When I first wanted to recruit a black player," Tech basketball coach Scotty Robertson told me in 1973, "I wasn't necessarily looking for a super player, just one who could make it in school and help our program. And 'Petey' had those credentials."
          Green was the super player. It was "Petey" who paved the way for him and the black players who followed.
          And George's contributions extended to track and field. He was a four-year letterman and two-time conference champion in the high jump, competed in the NCAA Championships, and helped Tech win the conference title in 1973.
          (The "flop" reference in the headline of my '73 column is a word play on the high-jump style -- the backward flip over the bar, body and then feet -- which became the standard style in the mid to late 1960s, replacing the old "Western roll" -- leading with one leg -- of decades.)
          George was Tech's first black athlete in track and field, too. But that fact did not faze him.
          "I did not pay attention to that," he recalled. "I knew I was the first in basketball, and the first athlete, but what I came there for was the education."
         He felt he'd be fine in what was an almost all-white university -- Tech did have a few black students at the time -- because "my high school was 70 percent white and 30 percent black. I figured I could get along with all kinds of people ..."
          He is 65 now; he and Judith have been married for 26 years, they live in St. Louis (Kirkwood is a suburb) and there are five daughters, two sons, 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. For a decade, George has beens president/owner of St. Louis Avenue Metal Services, and Judith helps him run the business.
          He left Kirkwood in late summer 1968 at his mother's suggestion. He wanted to play at Kansas, but that chance never came. What was intriguing were some junior-college offers that included "some benefits such as cars, "but I wanted to  go to a four-year school. ... My mother is the one who looked after the [recruiting] process. She said 'you need to get away from your friends in this area' and suggested I look around."
          When a recruiter from Louisiana Tech came to Kirkwood High -- he doesn't remember who it was, but says Robertson did not come to the St. Louis area -- he was invited "to come down and looked around."
           On his visit, several factors sold him -- he received a friendly reception everywhere; "they had a beautiful black lady who showed me around the campus ... they knew how to get my attention," he said, with a laugh, "and the training table really attracted me; all the athletes eating in one place, and the food seemed really good." What clinched it was "they promised it would be a four-year deal, even if I got hurt. That was worth $100,000, I figured."
           So Louisiana Tech it was. It would be a new experience for everyone on campus and in the community.
            (Next: Moving into a new era)                   




  1. From Ron Hill: Ron Hill Excellent article. I never went to Tech so it helps me get a feel for the people you have encountered.

  2. From Maxie Hays: Scotty surely picked the right guy to be the first black athlete at Tech. George was a winner.

  3. From Jim Shaw: Loved this guy. What a quiet, unassuming gentleman. A great asset in track.

  4. From Bud Dean: Excellent, revives my foggy memory. Can’t wait for the next piece.

  5. From Mike Harrell: My only question about "a good one" would have been whether the reference was to athletic ability or personal demeanor? Perhaps both. Those were interesting times in which race seems to have shaded everything. Have those times returned?