By Wendy Holdren
The city of Beckley simply wouldn’t be what it is today without Warren Ashby Thornhill III.
Everyone who had the pleasure of knowing Thornhill, who passed away Wednesday following a long illness, all echoed the same sentiment that he was a hard-working businessman, a role model, a mentor and a great friend.
In his 84 years of life, he gave so much to his community, from helping to establish the Beckley Area Foundation to raising funds to construct the YMCA of Southern West Virginia and much, much more.
“He was such a pillar in the community in so many ways,” said Charlie Connor, former publisher of The Register-Herald, from his Florida home.
“He was a top-notch guy. He was the kind of guy who worked unselfishly in all areas of Beckley life.”
He was born in Beckley to Warren A. Thornhill Jr. and Estelle Myers Thornhill, who were also known for their love of helping the community.
Thornhill graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1946 and earned his law degree in 1952 from Duke University. He met his wife, Carol, while she was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Moody Air Force Base at Valdosta was Thornhill’s next endeavor, as he joined the U.S. Air Force after passing his bar exam.
He was discharged in September 1954; he and Carol then returned to Beckley where he entered a law practice with his father.
His return to Beckley was the beginning of his philanthropic legacy.
“He made my job a pleasure,” said Bob Bolen, former YMCA executive director.
Bolen said without Warren and the Thornhill family, the Y would have never been built.
“He was the key person. He took months off from his law office to raise funds. He not only gave his money, but dedicated his time.”
Thornhill also worked to help pay off the mortgage for the Y so the facility could be debt-free.
“He was a great man and it is unbelievable what he has done for this community.”
Bolen’s first impression was that Thornhill was very business-like, all work and no play.
He soon realized that he was only half right — Thornhill absolutely loved to play basketball.
Bolen said he never missed Wednesday basketball night at the Y.
“His wife used to joke that she hoped she wasn’t buried on a Wednesday night.”
Young and old basketball players alike had much respect for Thornhill, who played until he was in his 60s.
Bill File III, city attorney and current attorney for the Beckley Area Foundation, said Thornhill was a fierce competitor on the basketball court.
He said the two of them shared a love of sports and he really looked up to him as an attorney.
“He was the one attorney that really set the standard that all the younger attorneys tried to match.”
Thornhill’s courtroom skills were quite impressive and File said has never seen anyone better relate to a jury.
“He was a gentlemen that we all admired and learned from. Beckley is a better community because of his efforts.”
As one of the 10 original founding members of the Beckley Area Foundation, Thornhill helped establish a legacy that will forever impact the community.
The BAF got its start with a $1.1 million gift from the Dr. Thomas Walker Memorial Health Foundation as seed money for the project.
Now, 27 years later, there are over $30 million in permanent endowments. Only the income from these funds is spent and the principal remains intact to serve the community forever.
The foundation has distributed more than $6.8 million to charities and other worthy projects in education, public recreation, health and human services, the arts and beautification.
Thornhill served on the board for six years, but his service to the foundation was far from over.
Susan Landis, current BAF executive director, said Thornhill provided legal services to the foundation free of charge for many years.
Even after he retired, he was always willing to help the foundation with any legal questions.
“He created a legacy of improving the quality of life in Beckley and quietly taking care of those needs,” Landis said.
She said if we could all realize that we have a debt to the places we grew up and give back to them, the world would be a better place — “He was a living example of this.”
Thornhill served on the Library Board, was president of the Raleigh County Bar Association, chaired the United Way fund drive, served as a director at Raleigh County National Bank (now United Bank), taught commercial law courses to local bank employees and served on the board of the Davis-Stuart Children’s Home.
United Bank President Rick Adams said, “The United Bank family is deeply saddened with the passing of Mr. Thornhill. Mr. Thornhill played an integral role in the success of our company for many years — as a director, as a valued customer, and as a friend of the Bank. His presence and leadership in our organization and in the community will be greatly missed.”
Donald F. Mock III, United’s Market President - South Market, commented, “I had the honor of meeting Mr. Thornhill when I first moved to Beckley in August 2008. During my short time as president of United Bank’s South Market, I had the privilege of having Mr. Thornhill as a professional mentor on banking. In addition, he shared with me a great deal of insight on the history of this financial institution and it’s importance to the Beckley-Raleigh County community.”
Another United official, Douglas B. Ernest, Executive Vice President - Credit Risk Management, said of Thornhill, “I had the honor and pleasure of working with Mr. Thornhill through his involvement with United Bank as well as the Carter Family Foundation. Whether in a business or civic matter, his professionalism and passion for the task at hand was exceptional. I will fondly remember our many conversations about sports, especially his love for basketball.”
Thornhill was an active member of the Beckley Presbyterian Church.
Robert “Robin” W. Debnam, pastor at Beckley Presbyterian from 1993 to 2002, said being active in the church was one of Thornhill’s great loves.
“He was an adviser to the youth, worked with the confirmation class, worked as a Sunday School teacher and served on the finance committee.”
Debnam said he expressed his faith, dedication and enthusiasm all throughout his life, which can be seen through his love for the YMCA and all the things that led to his Spirit of Beckley Award.
Thornhill received the Spirit of Beckley Community Service Award in 1993 and the West Virginia Grantmakers Spirit of Philanthropy Award in 2008.
In his professional career, Thornhill estimated he tried approximately 1,000 cases, including 50 murder trials. He was a charter member of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association and later became a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers and the American Board of Trial Advocates.
Thornhill Courts, the mini-park in the 200 block of South Fayette Street, was named for Warren Thornhill and his family, who lived nearby on Woodlawn Avenue.
His wife Carol also was very supportive of his endeavors. Her garden club offered landscaping services at the YMCA and she also taught Sunday School classes at their church.
They are the parents of three children, Katherine, Lynn and James. Katherine and James are lawyers in Santa Rosa, Calif., and Richmond, Va., respectively, and Lynn is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Atlanta, Ga.
Condolences may be sent to the family’s guestbook at www.meltonmortuary.com.
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