Richard Lewis “Dick” Thornburgh (1932-2020) was an attorney, author, and Republican politician. Identified by Washingtonian magazine in 2006 as one of “ten legendary Washington lawyers who will forever leave their mark on the District’s legal landscape,” Dick Thornburgh was counsel to the international law firm of K&L Gates LLP, in its Washington, D.C. office. He began his legal career in 1958 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the firm of Kirkpatrick, Pomeroy, Lockhart, and Johnson (predecessors to K&L Gates LLP). Prior to his position at the Washington Office of K&L Gates, he served as Governor of Pennsylvania, Attorney General of the United States under Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush and Under-Secretary General of the United Nations, during a public career which spanned over 25 years.
Elected Governor of Pennsylvania in 1978 and re-elected in 1982, Thornburgh was the first Republican to serve two successive terms in that office. He served as Chair of the Republican Governors Association and was named by his fellow governors as one of the nation's most effective big-state governors in a 1986 Newsweek poll.
During his service as Governor, Thornburgh balanced state budgets for eight consecutive years, reduced both personal and business tax rates, cut the state's record-high indebtedness and left a surplus of $350 million. Under his leadership, 15,000 positions were eliminated from the swollen state bureaucracy that he inherited and widely recognized economic development, education and welfare reform programs were implemented. Pennsylvania's unemployment rate, among the ten highest in the nation when he was elected, was among the ten lowest when he left office as 50,000 new businesses and 500,000 new private sector jobs were created during his tenure.
Following the unprecedented Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, Governor Thornburgh was described by observers as “one of the few authentic heroes of that episode as a calm voice against panic.”
After his unanimous confirmation by the United States Senate, Thornburgh served three years as Attorney General of the United States (1988-1991) in the cabinets of Presidents Reagan and Bush. He focused on white-collar crime as the Department of Justice obtained a record number of convictions of savings and loan and securities officials, defense contractors and corrupt public officials. Thornburgh established strong ties with law enforcement agencies around the world to help combat drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorism, and international white-collar crime. During his tenure as Attorney General, he twice argued and won cases before the United States Supreme Court. The Legal Times noted that Thornburgh as Attorney General “built a reputation as one of the most effective champions that prosecutors have ever had.” An honorary Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he chaired a panel of the National Academy of Public Administration examining the FBI’s post-9/11 transformation process and was a member of the FBI Director’s Advisory Board.
As Attorney General, Thornburgh played a leading role in the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2002, he received the Wiley E. Branton Award of The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs in recognition of his “commitment to the civil rights of people with disabilities.” He also acted against racial, religious and ethnic “hate crimes,” and his office mounted a renewed effort to enforce the nation's antitrust and environmental laws.
All told, Thornburgh served in the Justice Department under five Presidents, beginning as United States Attorney in Pittsburgh (1969-1975) and Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division (1975-1977), emphasizing efforts against major drug traffickers, organized crime, and corrupt public officials. In August 2002, he was appointed Examiner in the WorldCom bankruptcy proceedings, then the largest ever filed, to report on wrongdoing and malfeasance that led to the company’s downfall. He was also chosen in 2004 by CBS to co-chair an independent investigation into the “60 Minutes Wednesday” segment on President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard and has conducted numerous other internal investigations for leading enterprises.
During his service as Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations (1992-1993), Thornburgh oversaw personnel, budget and finance matters. His report to the Secretary-General on reform, restructuring and streamlining efforts designed to make the United Nations peacekeeping, humanitarian, and development programs more efficient and cost-effective was widely praised. He also has served as a consultant to the United Nations, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank on efforts to battle fraud and corruption.
In 2006, Thornburgh received a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from The American Lawyer magazine for “important contributions to public life while building an outstanding private practice.” He has regularly been selected by his peers to be included in “The Best Lawyers in America,” and the Washington Post, in 2008, listed Thornburgh as one of “Washington DC’s Top Lawyers.” Earlier, in addition, the Pennsylvania Bar Association presented him with its Public Service in the Law Award in 1992. He chaired the Legal Advisory Board of the Washington Legal Foundation and served as a member of the American Bar Association’s Task Force on the Attorney-Client Privilege.
Throughout his career, he traveled widely, visiting over 40 countries and meeting with leaders from Canada, Mexico, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Russia, Ukraine, Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, India, Cambodia, Australia, New Zealand and Central and South America. He served as an observer to the Russian Federation’s first legislative (1993) and presidential (1996) elections. A supporter of self-determination, Thornburgh authored The Future of Puerto Rico: A Time to Decide, published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2007. He was a former member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
A native of Pittsburgh, Thornburgh was educated at Yale University, where he obtained an engineering degree, and at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law where he served as an editor of the Law Review. He was awarded honorary degrees by 32 other colleges and universities. Thornburgh served as Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government (1987-1988) and lectured on over 125 other campuses, (including Moscow State University in 1989 and 2011), debated at the Oxford Union and frequently appeared as a guest commentator on network news and talk shows.
Thornburgh was a Life Trustee of the Urban Institute and a Trustee Emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh, the Gettysburg Foundation, and the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. He served as Chair of the Board of Visitors at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and was a member of the Advisory Board of the RAND Corporation Center for Corporate Ethics and Governance. He previously served as a member of the boards of Merrill Lynch Incorporated, Rite-Aid Corporation, ARCO Chemical Corporation, Élan Corporation, plc, the Urban League of Pittsburgh, The Stimson Center, the National Museum of Industrial History, and the National Academy of Public Administration. He was the founding Chairman of the State Science and Technology Institute and served as Vice-Chairman of the World Committee on Disability.
He was a member of the American Law Institute and the American Bar Foundation. In 1992, he was honored by The American Legion with its highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal for “outstanding service to the community, state and nation” at its annual meeting in Chicago. In 2001, he was selected as a lifetime National Associate of the National Academies of Science and Engineering in recognition of his pro bono service to their programs, including the chairing of studies on science and technology and economic development; youth, pornography and the internet; and electronic voting.
Thornburgh served as an elected Delegate to Pennsylvania's Constitutional Convention (1967-1968) where he spearheaded efforts at judicial and local government reform. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the United States House of Representatives (1966) and the United States Senate (1991).
Thornburgh, born July 16, 1932, was married to Ginny Judson Thornburgh in 1963, a former schoolteacher from New York, who holds degrees from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has served as Director of the Interfaith Initiative of the American Association of People with Disabilities, based in Washington, D.C., and has co-authored and edited That All May Worship, an award-winning handbook for religious congregations working to include people with all types of disabilities. She received the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil Rights Award from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in April 2005.
As parents of a son with physical and intellectual disability, the Thornburgh’s have taken a special interest in the needs of persons with disabilities and, with their son, Peter, were named “Family of the Year." Both Ginny and Dick Thornburgh were featured speakers at the Vatican Conference on Disabilities held in Rome in November 1992 and were co-recipients in 2003 of the Henry B. Betts Award, the proceeds from which were used to establish the Thornburgh Family Lecture Series on Disability Law and Policy at the University of Pittsburgh.
The Thornburgh’s returned to the Pittsburgh area in 2015 and continued as counsel and advisor at K&L Gates. In March 2019, Thornburgh’s retirement was announced following six decades of public and private legal services.
Richard L. Thornburgh died on Thursday, December 31, 2020 at his retirement home in Oakmont, Pennsylvania and is survived by his spouse, Ginny, son’s John, David, Peter, and William, six grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
Dick Thornburgh’s autobiography, Where the Evidence Leads has been published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in both hardback (2003) and paperback (2010) editions.