Edmund Thornton helped turn historic buildings into museums, donated land for green space and a hospital, and turned the Illinois and Michigan Canal into a national treasure.
He also steered the GOP to stunning wins.
Thornton, 93, of Ottawa, died Nov. 24. He was mourned in civic, political and cultural circles across the region, with the La Salle County Historical Society calling his contributions “too numerous to list separately.”
“Supporters the likes of Edmund Thornton come along rarely,” the society said in a statement. “His passion for history and the desire to develop a physical location to display and share local artifacts and stories has been realized. His vision turned reality is the story the La Salle County Historical Society looks forward to preserving and sharing for years to come.”
Chicago-born Thornton led a fascinating life even before taking the reins at Ottawa Silica Co., the family business where he served as CEO from 1962 to 1983 and retired as chairman in 1986.
Edmund was an incredible source of wisdom and inspiration. He is now a part of our history. He will be missed.”— Robert Eschbach, former mayor of Ottawa
Ivy League-educated and with a distinguished military career (honorably discharged as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps), Thornton sailed on two Arctic expeditions with Donald B. MacMillan in the crew of the Schooner Bowdoin. He met Inuit communities and reached a latitude of 11 degrees from the North Pole.
Although mostly behind the scenes, Thornton became an influential voice in the Republican Party, starting in 1972, when Richard Nixon tabbed him to chair the National Parks Centennial Commission, a yearlong celebration of the founding of the National Parks System.
That experience led him to press for the establishment of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor (now National Heritage Area), where he served as its inaugural chairman from 1985 to 1988 and again from 1999 to 2000.
He also served on many boards dedicated to preserving historical sites, which led him to oversee two major historical projects in the Illinois and Fox river valleys.
As president of the La Salle County Historical Society, he oversaw the restoration of the old stone warehouse in Utica for use as the La Salle County Historical Museum, which in turn led to the founding of the Burgoo Festival.
In Ottawa, he helped establish the Reddick Mansion Association and nominated it and other buildings around Washington Square to be included in the National Registry of Historic Places.
Through the Ottawa Silica Company Foundation, he donated land for the construction of the Community Hospital of Ottawa (now OSF St. Elizabeth) and the newly improved Thornton Park. He helped develop Ottawa’s first operational airport and conceived of and commissioned the “Effigy Tumuli” sculptures at Buffalo Rock State Park.
“Edmund had a great understanding and appreciation of local history and, in particular, the importance of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in the development and growth of La Salle County, especially Ottawa,” former Ottawa Mayor Bob Eschbach said. “His often-heard mantra was ‘Ottawa is a canal town.’
“Edmund was an incredible source of wisdom and inspiration. He is now a part of our history. He will be missed.”
Thornton ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1962, but his political acumen caught the eye of Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie, who tabbed him to serve on an advisory council. Thornton represented Illinois in the Electoral College in five presidential contests and was an official delegate at five Republican National Conventions.
He also chaired the La Salle County Republican Central Committee for 12 years, starting in 1980, when Illinois native Ronald Reagan enjoyed a landslide victory for the White House and ushered in down-ballot Republicans across the region.
“Mr. Thornton brought leadership, direction and strength to our party,” said Tom Templeton, former La Salle County sheriff and a longtime party activist. “To me personally, he provided guidance, insight and friendship. He will be missed.”
Bob Vickrey, one of Thornton’s successors at the central committee, said Thornton was perfectly suited for the task. With a good handle on the pulse of politics and a keen sense of future, Thornton patiently mapped out successes for the GOP “all the while passing credit for what he did onto others.”
“In his prime, he was the best,” Vickrey said. “Edmond knew instinctively that in politics nothing worth doing gets done overnight.”
Mueller Funeral Home and Crematory in Ottawa is in charge of arrangements.