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A remembrance: Richard L. Thornburgh (1932-2020)

January 07, 2021
By: Dan Berglund

As 2020 came to a close, we received word that former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh had passed away on Dec. 31. Obituaries in the New York Times, Washington Post and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, rightly focused on his tenure as U.S. Attorney General and his two terms as governor, including his handling of Three Mile Island shortly after becoming governor. But I would like to focus on his legacy as it relates to technology-based economic development (TBED) and as a person.

While the origins of TBED can be traced back to Research Triangle Park and industrial extension programs in Georgia and North Carolina, current activity really stems from the creation of the Ben Franklin Partnership program, the brainchild of Gov. Thornburgh and his key policy advisor on the issue, Walt Plosila. In describing the origins of the program, the governor would cite the Samuel Johnson quote, “Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of imminent hanging,” and discuss the dire economic conditions Pennsylvania (and other Great Lakes states) faced at the time.

Ryan Glenn, director of statewide initiatives for Ben Franklin Technology Partners, explained in a statement, “In order to harness the power of our state’s brightest minds and create a platform to provide Pennsylvania’s most promising early-stage technology firms and established manufacturers with the necessary support to grow and thrive, Governor Dick Thornburgh strongly advocated for the creation of the Ben Franklin Partnership. He had a clear goal — to drive the transformation and growth of Pennsylvania’s economy through the application of science and technology to catalyze innovation and entrepreneurship — all to Pennsylvania’s economic advantage.

“Governor Thornburgh named the partnership after one of Pennsylvania’s most influential residents, reasoning that Benjamin Franklin evidenced the exact skills that would make the program work — merging science, innovation, business acumen, and statesmanship to serve the greater good. Today, the implementation of that vision has helped create more than 148,000 jobs and boosted the state economy by more than $25 billion. We celebrate Governor Thornburgh’s life by giving thanks for his commitment to the economic wellbeing of our communities. His enduring vision continues to benefit generations of Pennsylvanians across the Commonwealth.”

While Gov. Thornburgh left public office in 1991, he continued in public service, including serving as SSTI’s first chairman of the board. There are many people responsible for SSTI’s creation and for its continued existence, but it’s safe to say that we wouldn’t still be here if it hadn’t been for Gov. Thornburgh’s leadership and at one point intervention with a significant funder who predicated further funding on the condition of meeting the governor. As with all things we asked of him, the governor accepted the request with grace and smilingly obliged. He spoke whenever we asked, happily traveled to meet with other governors to evangelize on the importance of investing in science and technology and provided wise counsel to this very green chief executive as I learned how to run a new organization.

In describing Gov. Thornburgh to friends, I have always used the word “gentleman.” He was an unfailingly polite, gracious and warm individual who was interested in each person he met, and made all of them feel welcome.

Current SSTI board chair, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, remembered him this way: “I think of his extraordinary ability, his humanity, his integrity, his compassion, his wonderful sense of humor. You take all that and wrap around a loving husband, a great dad and a remarkable public servant, and you have Dick Thornburgh.”

As Gov. Ridge said, Gov. Thornburgh had a great sense of humor. He was quick to laugh and a good storyteller. Attendees at the 2010 Annual Conference may recall his wry description of the Tea Party that brought peals of laughter from the crowd. His humor and grace were evident in an interview with Da Ali G, a Sacha Baron Cohen character that pre-saged Borat. Throughout the interview, he patiently attempted to explain the American justice system to this alleged British rapper and did it while chuckling at the questions but also treating the interviewer and topic with respect.

The world, our field and I are all far better off that Dick Thornburgh was with us and did remarkable work to make the world a better place.