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What I’ve Learned: Barbara C. Thornton ’57, ‘67M.A.


  Most of us don’t realize the significance of the stories we tell (and often change) about ourselves and others. Through listening and talking about our stories we can share our lives. I have learned how interdependent we are on each other, both in our local communities and throughout the globe.

Think globally and act locally is more important now than ever. I once heard someone say that our world is on fire and the only way to put out the fire is to work together. I’m not downplaying the role of the individual, but through getting to know other people, both as students and faculty, you learn about relationships and politics.
An important part of my story began after four wonderful years at the University of Nevada, Reno. I went to Washington, D.C. where I studied law for one semester as one woman in a class of 500 men. I worked for Nevada Sen. Howard Cannon and for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. I was asked to stay to work for the Kennedy administration, but my husband Bill ’58 (criminal justice) wanted to return to Reno. Watching politics in action was a learning experience about good and bad decision-making.

After returning to Reno with my husband, teaching and increasing my knowledge about decision-making became a goal, and to incorporate women in the decision-making process a high priority. I earned a Ph.D. in health communications at the University of Utah and was hired as one of the few women faculty at Nevada. My first position was as research director of a project on interdisciplinary health care teams at Nevada’s then-new medical school.

My career at Nevada always involved bringing people together in groups or learning how group decisions can be made. As faculty we often think we impart knowledge, but I think knowledge is imparted to us through the lives of students who come from different families and areas of the country and world. It is important to remember we learn from our bad decisions as well as what appear to be the good ones. It is also important to bring in the community and the world to enhance education.
Ethics became especially important to me. After doing post-doctoral work, I taught ethics and health communication classes for more than 38 years at Nevada, focusing on such issues as death and dying, the process of ethical decision-making and resource allocation. I also taught women’s studies and helped form the department. I loved interaction with students and others. Serving as vice president of The Hastings Center, an international bioethics consortium, I had the opportunity to also learn from people from all over the world.

Later, I became concerned about the structure of our University, where most departments worked independently of each other. With faculty and help from President Joe Crowley, we established the College of Human and Community Sciences. This college had a unique model of faculty interaction and participation during more than 10 years. We also started the Nevada Center for Ethics and Health Policy, which focused on many health care issues, but particularly on improving health care related to death and dying. It was a loss to the State of Nevada when this center was disbanded due to budget cuts. However, I have learned that things don’t have to continue in their original form if they turn into another configuration that encourages the spread of knowledge.

Peace and human rights escalated as issues in the 1970s. Students were demonstrating on campus because of the Vietnam War, and my husband Bill and I were concerned that there was little focus on peace and human rights, both locally and worldwide. In addition to war issues, there were some serious racial problems both on campus and in the community, and we decided to offer the Thornton Peace Prize each year.

Another problem that concerned many of us was the reality that women’s and children’s issues were not the focus of foundation or corporate giving. Women were having trouble getting jobs and education when they often had to support their families. With Frankie Sue Del Papa ’71 (pre-legal) doing the legal work, Maya Miller, a worldwide activist, and I started the Nevada Women’s Fund. The fund has encouraged community leaders to put their personal agendas aside to be advocates for women and children. Amazing women continue to lead the organization, which provides scholarships and grants for women and children throughout the state.

One of my concerns was how to enhance ties between the University and community. My brother, John Cavanaugh ’63 (pre-legal), and I established the Cavanaugh Community Volunteer Award, which honored both our mother and father, Margery and John Cavanaugh, and encouraged community volunteerism.

In 2005, I received the Distinguished Faculty award, which meant a great deal to me. I was surprised to receive them, but I hope that my work on trying to integrate the community, the University, women and decision-making was the impetus.
Since becoming professor emeritus, I am part of a family business where I encourage communication between the University and the business community. I also assist with raising two of my four grandchildren. Family is really important to me. I’ve enjoyed getting older and love this part of my life.

I want to continue to research and write on how to help children learn to cope with stressful situations. I want to examine the difference between content and process. Content is what we teach people or what the media tells us. Process is how we make decisions and how we live our lives—how we work together, how we compromise. I believe one must always continue learning. Often, we think learning is over when we graduate, but that is really when its application starts. Bringing our academic and personal knowledge together isn’t always taught, but it is what gives people a rewarding, peaceful life.
The word “retirement” bothers me. I prefer “rewirement.” We are always in the process of rewiring ourselves to become the best that we can be!

From a conversation with Crystal Parrish, director of corporate and foundation relations. Thornton, who holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in political science from Nevada and a Ph.D. in health communications at the University of Utah,  taught ethics and communications for nearly 38 years and became faculty emeritus in 2005. She has received both the Distinguished Faculty and Distinguished Nevadan awards. She has been recognized for her service (1979) and professional achievement (1992) by the Nevada Alumni Association. As co-founder of the Nevada Women’s Fund, her efforts benefit women and families throughout the state. At the University, she, along with her husband Bill, established the Thornton Peace Prize, and with her brother, John Cavanaugh, established the Cavanaugh Community Volunteer Award. She is listed as a Silver Benefactor at Honor Court. She would appreciate hearing from her former students and friends and may be reached at (775) 250-5151 or


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