Richard Thornburgh, Governor in 1970s Nuclear Crisis, Dies at 88

Richard Thornburgh, who handled the Three Mile Island nuclear accident two months after his inauguration as Pennsylvania governor and later prosecuted white-collar criminals as U.S. attorney general, has died. He was 88.

He died Thursday morning at a retirement community facility outside Pittsburgh, the Associated Press reported, citing his son David. The cause is not yet known, AP said.

On March 28, 1979, Thornburgh learned there had been an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A former assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division in Washington, Thornburgh was in his first term as governor.

He recommended that pregnant women and young children within five miles of the facility leave the area, and he later toured the site with President Jimmy Carter. Although the partial meltdown had negligible effects on public health, it was the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history and sparked new regulations in the industry.

Thornburgh was “the hero of the crisis,” said Nancy Watson, curator of the Thornburgh Collection at the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library.

‘Reassuring’ Governor

“His calm and careful decision-making was reassuring,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Someone was willing to hold the reins, and in this case, it was the governor.”

A Republican, he served two terms as governor and later worked as U.S. attorney general under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Thornburgh handled convictions stemming from the savings-and-loans scandals in the 1980s and was recognized by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs for his role in enacting the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Aggressively prosecute savings-and-loan and other white-collar crooks,” was one of the instructions Thornburgh received from Bush on his 1988 election as president. His three other tasks were to install a “Bush team” in the Justice Department, promote civil rights and target drug traffickers, according to Thornburgh’s 2003 autobiography, “Where the Evidence Leads.”

Early Life

Richard Lewis Thornburgh was born July 16, 1932, in Pittsburgh. His father, Charles Thornburgh, was a civil engineer and his mother, the former Alice Sanborn, a direct descendant of William Bradford, who arrived in America on the Mayflower. He had two older sisters and an older brother.

Thornburgh attended Carnegie High School, near Pittsburgh, and Mercersburg Academy, a boarding school in south-central Pennsylvania. He then earned a degree in engineering at Yale University, graduating in 1954, before completing a law degree at the University of Pittsburgh.

His first job was as staff counsel at Aluminum Company of America, better known as Alcoa, in Pittsburgh. In 1959, he left to join the law firm Kirkpatrick, Pomeroy, Lockhart & Johnson.

Thornburgh was U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh from 1969 to 1975 and assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division from 1975 to 1977. He became Pennsylvania’s governor the following year and was re-elected in 1982, the first Republican to serve two successive terms in that office. He served as U.S. attorney general from 1988 to 1991.

WorldCom Bankruptcy

Thornburgh remained active in legal affairs after leaving public service. Among his projects was his appointment in 2002 as an examiner in the bankruptcy of WorldCom Inc., then the largest ever filed. He was also counsel at the Pittsburgh-based law firm of K&L Gates LLP.

Thornburgh said his commitment to public service stemmed from the death of his first wife, the former Virginia Hooton, in a car accident in 1960. A son, Peter, suffered a brain injury in that crash.

“I was then 28,” Thornburgh told the New York Times in 1989, “and it was a very stark reminder to me that you have a very finite time on this Earth to live and to do what is most positive and productive.”

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