D.C. Council members often long to run the other way when they see lobbyists and leaders of special interest groups heading their way.
Juanita E. Thornton was an exception. When she came a-calling, they said, she told them about pressing problems and frequently offered them workable solutions. Her issues revolved around the city's oldest and youngest residents, and she made life better for them in whatever she organized and touched, they said.
Last week, about a dozen of the District's highest ranking public officials and educators were among the mourners at funeral service for Thornton, who died Sept. 14 at age 77 of respiratory failure after surgery at Howard University Hospital.
"Some people come to us and they truly get on your nerves, but not Mrs. Thornton," said council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), who attended the funeral. "She was just a fine lady. When she called, it was always about substance. It wasn't nonsense."
City officials called Thornton a vigorous champion for the rights of senior citizens. As chairman of the D.C. Commission on Aging from 1977 to 1983, she initiated adult literacy programs so that seniors would learn to sign checks, read newspapers and vote.
It was Thornton who took the first steps to get priority seating on buses for senior citizens, and it was she who created the D.C. Nursing Home Advisory Commission to ensure that seniors in these facilities were not neglected.
She believed that voices is unison could make a difference, and organized groups of elderly to meet with representatives in Congress to protest cuts in Medicaid and to push for such issues as D.C. home rule.
Even though Thornton discovered in the mid-1980s that she was losing her sight, she continued to push for issues such as the establishment of the Shepherd Park library.
"She was an advocate for all good things," said council member Hilda H.M. Mason (Statehood-At Large).
A gifted teacher, Thornton served as dean of students at Wilberforce University, as a counselor at the University of the District of Columbia and as acting principal of Stevens Elementary School in Northwest.
During her nearly 20-year tenure in the D.C. schools, Thornton was the assistant director of the school desegregation program and was a supervisor in the instruction department. She retired from the school system in 1972.
Thornton was named Washingtonian magazine's "Washingtonian of the Year" in 1983.
"She was a lady gifted with deep compassion for anyone she felt was neglected or overlooked or not treated with equity by society," said Lawrence N. Jones of the Howard University School of Divinity, who delivered the eulogy. "She understood politics and how to make the system work for the people."
Testimony to that were the city officials who turned out for her funeral last week. Aside from Crawford, council members Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), Mason, John Ray (D-At Large), John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) and Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3) also paid their respects, as did Mayor Marion Barry, school Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins and Joseph P. Yeldell, head of the D.C. Office of Emergency Preparedness.
"When we saw that hat coming down the hall and a woman standing tall, we knew who it was," Nathanson said. "Her passing means that the elderly and the sick have lost a fantastic advocate."