“For him, it was a lifelong sense of pride,” said Paul Thornell, recalling his father, who died April 28 at 83 of covid-19 at his home at the Residences at Thomas Circle. “The Peace Corps is the thing that has lasted, in a meaningful way, longer than other things, and the fact that my dad had a central role in launching it, that meant a lot to him.”
Breaking ground was in Richard Thornell’s veins. A native of New York City, he was the second black graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, where he received his master’s in public affairs in 1958.
While there, he befriended a student from Germany, Hans-Christoph Boemers, and in 1956, the two took a road trip through the South, staying with Thornell’s friends or alumni of Fisk University in Tennessee, where Thornell had received his undergraduate degree.
In Columbia, S.C., “people shook their fists at us because a white and a black man were not supposed to ride together in one car,” Boemers wrote in a 2017 essay. “I had Richard, who answered all my questions, helped me interpret human behavior that was foreign to me and who explained the everyday life conditions of black Americans in those years.”
Eventually, Thornell would apply his teaching skills more formally. After serving in the U.S. Army, USAID, and the Peace Corps and earning a law degree from Yale University, he worked at a law firm and then taught at Howard University School of Law from 1976 until his retirement in the mid-2000s. He taught hundreds of students who went on to serve in the judiciary, law enforcement, elected office, philanthropy and the corporate world.
He also served as a board member of Fisk; general counsel at Howard; special counsel to the Washington bureau of the NAACP; vice chair and counsel of the board of directors of Africare; chair of the exchange programs committee of the International Division of the YMCA of the USA; and a member of the board of directors of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington. He was a charter member of the Beta Mu Boule of Sigma Pi Phi national professional fraternity.
In the 1990s, Thornell helped launch the Howard University Republic of South Africa Partnership with the newly established government in South Africa. Thornell and other Howard leaders traveled to South Africa to provide counsel to President Nelson Mandela’s administration on the design of the country’s constitution. In 2000, Thornell helped win a presidential pardon for his old Fisk classmate and friend Preston King, a civil rights activist who as a graduate student in the early 1960s was convicted of draft evasion and spent 39 years outside the United States to avoid going to prison.
“Richard was in a quiet way at the forefront of so many things,” said the W.E.B. Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis, who met Thornell when they both matriculated at Fisk as 15-year-olds. The two remained best friends for life.
In 1956, when John Hope Franklin, a historian at Brooklyn College and Fisk alumnus, became the first African American to be named chairman of an academic department at a municipal college, an excited Thornell rang up Lewis, who was doing graduate work at Columbia University.
“He said, ‘Let’s go see him, let’s go see John,’ ” Lewis recalled. “He came up from Princeton, and we got on the subway and went to Brooklyn College. We barged in on John Hope Franklin, who was very courteous. He said, ‘Come on in.’ And that was very much Richard. I think we talked about the . . . pride we took as Fisk alums in the tradition of Du Bois. It was such an uplifting and congenial experience.”
Later, when Thornell was a new trustee at Fisk, “he reached out to a local newspaper to have it investigate some improprieties and that led to a change in the governance of the school,” Lewis said. “That was really quite courageous . . . to be a trustee and a whistleblower at the same time. His eye was really sharp to the way things should go, and if they weren’t going right, he’d kick over the traces.”
Thornell had Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, and he and his wife had moved from their home in Silver Spring to Thomas Circle late last year. she into independent living and he into assisted living. He tested positive for the novel coronavirus in mid-April and fell ill a few days before he died.
“He had a little bit of a cough but he never really got full-blown symptoms,” said Paul Thornell, adding that the family decided not to move him to a hospital where he might be put on a ventilator. “We didn’t want the last days of his life to be uncomfortable.”
Survivors include his wife of nearly 50 years, Carolyn Atkinson Thornell, former executive director of the Kingsbury Center, former chair of the Board of Trustees of the Sidwell Friends School, and former chair of the board of Children’s Hospital; sons David Thornell of London; Paul Thornell of Washington; and Douglass Thornell of Potomac, Md.; a sister, Elizabeth Quinitchett, of Islip, N.Y.; and grandchildren Nolan and Lena Thornell.
Memorial services will be held later, when family and friends can safely gather to celebrate Thornell’s life and legacy.