Many weekends Mike Thornton and his wife, Amy Domini, stepped away from their demanding, successful careers in Boston to travel the two-lane roads connecting many charming Kentucky towns. Mike’s mother, Wilma, inspired these travels as she loved a chance to see the countryside she called home. These day trips grew their life-long appreciation for family, Kentucky, and responsible living. It was these shared loves that led the Thorntons to honor Mike’s father with the Paul A. Thornton Distinguished Professorship and Fellowship— a gift that supports the work of faculty and students studying and researching clinical nutrition through the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences.
A call to live responsibly
Mike Thornton spent years of his childhood in Lexington and had seen much of the state already. When traveling with his wife and mother, however, he saw Kentucky with fresh perspective. They appreciated the unique and proud heritage of Berea, Danville, Maysville and Paris. The state, they learned, held Amish farms, old Shaker villages, thoroughbred stables, and lovely protected natural sites. Kentucky, they said, is as lovely and diverse as any of the famous global tourist destinations they had visited. Mike and Amy particularly admired the people and communities where the focus seemed to be on well-being more than scale. Questioning, appreciating, and considering the management of the environment is second nature to them.
Mike Thornton has built his career as a champion of the survivors of irresponsible chemical and environmental practices of industry. As the founder and chairman of Thornton Law Firm in Boston, he has brought justice to workers who contracted cancer or suffered other adverse health issues from workplace exposure to hazardous materials and to their children, who have suffered brain damage and birth defects from exposures they or their parents were not protected from, exposures like lead poisoning, chemicals and pesticides.
Mike considers his successful cases on behalf of clients as his biggest achievements as an attorney. He has many accomplishments, though, including the publication of a number of articles on legal subjects and lectures at the Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, and Yale Law School.
Amy, founder and chair of Domini Impact Investments, has been widely recognized as the leading voice for investing according to a set of ethical, social and environmental standards. “We use the strength of finance to promote universal human dignity and ecological sustainability,” she said.
Amy has been impressively successful. In 2005, Time Magazine named her to the Time 100 list of the world’s most influential people. In 2006, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Business Administration degree from Northeastern University College of Law.
A family legacy in advancing health
Mike’s father, Dr. Paul Thornton, was the first director of the clinical nutrition program at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Thornton studied nutrition as it relates to aiding recovery, contributing to obesity, and general health. Mike’s mother, Wilma, supported her husband’s work and was, in the words of her son, a true believer in the importance of nutrition.
As a teenager, Mike worked in his father’s clinical nutrition laboratory. He saw firsthand the integrity his father brought to his work and the high regard students and fellow faculty members had for him. “Dad loved research,” Mike said, “But he loved teaching most of all.”
Dr. Thornton’s students greatly benefitted from his devotion to teaching. Geza Bruckner, who has succeeded Dr. Thornton as the director of the clinical nutrition program, said of his mentor, "Dr. Thornton was truly an educator of the first class, and I'm thrilled to carry on the message he instilled in me as a young student."
A passion for the people of Kentucky
Mike and Amy have many Kentucky ties – even after having lived in Boston for more than 40 years. Mike’s brother lives in Lexington with his family, and they have life-long friends in Kentucky. “I feel very committed to the state and university,” Mike said.
He and Amy deeply appreciate the impact the University of Kentucky (UK) has had in their family. “My mom and dad both grew up in Northern Kentucky. My dad grew up in terrible poverty in Grant’s Lick area,” Mike said. “His father had very little education and my grandmother didn’t receive education past high school. Dad didn’t have anyone to look to.” Nonetheless Paul Thornton was able to overcome his challenges. He graduated from high school and volunteered for the U.S. Navy. After serving in World War II, he was accepted to UK, paid for by a federal program known as the GI Bill.
“UK made my dad,” Mike continued. “It was a tremendous experience for him. From where he started to where he went was remarkable.”
The Paul A. Thornton Distinguished Professorship and Fellowship bears witness to their confidence and appreciation of UK. “The Professorship gives the clinical nutrition program resources to expand its mission and reach. Nothing would make my dad more proud,” Mike said.
Dr. Geza Bruckner, who was a student of Dr. Thornton’s now holds the distinguished professorship. “My father thought the world of Geza. They were wonderful friends and colleagues,” Mike said.
Mike and Amy’s gift to establish the Professorship and Fellowship reflects their commitment to contributing to the lives of others when you can. This is a value that runs deep in their families. Amy is fond of telling a story that illustrates this.
“My grandfather was about 92 when he planted two cherry trees in his front yard. He told me then that they would take about five years to fully bloom and provide the yummy treats that would bring the birds,” she said. “He spoke with such enthusiasm and I silently wondered, did he realize that he was not likely to see that day? He knew, but it never for a moment occurred to him to deny beauty and pleasure to the world if he could, by his own hand, provide it. This is also our challenge.”
Mike and Amy, through their generous gift to the UK College of Health Sciences, have made great strides in the challenge by encouraging and supporting faculty and students in Kentucky whose work will bring positive change to the nutrition, health, and well-being of others.