Engineering Icon Charles Thornton Dies at 83

Image credit: Thornton Tomasetti

Engineering icon Charles Thornton died December 12 following a brief illness. He was 83.

Thornton’s career in structural engineering spanned more than 60 years, and its highlights included serving as chair and CEO of Thornton Tomasetti and founding the ACE Mentor Program of America. He retired from Thornton Tomasetti in 2004, but held an advisory role for several years afterward. He also served as chairman of the Charles H. Thornton Company, LLC, a management and strategic consulting firm, following his retirement from Thornton Tomasetti.

“Charlie Thornton was driven to succeed,” said AISC President Charles J. Carter, SE, PE, PhD. “He did so in many ways, but the most poignant one for me comes from the story he told me about how he used to dislike public speaking. He didn’t just overcome that—he became a generational voice in our profession.”

Under Thornton’s leadership, Thornton Tomasetti designed prominent skyscrapers, airports, sports and entertainment venues, transportation hubs, and special and long-span structures all over the globe. That work included some of the world’s first supertall towers, including Taipei 101 in Taiwan. He was also regarded as an expert in collapse and structural failure analysis.

“Charlie was a truly visionary structural engineer,” said Degenkolb Engineers COO and Senior Principal Jim Malley. “From leading the design of some of the world’s iconic structures to growing a small New York City firm into a global engineering powerhouse to founding the ACE Mentor Program, Charlie’s life and career were transformative and inspirational.”

Founded in 1994, the ACE Mentor Program now introduces more than 10,000 high school students each year to potential careers in architecture, engineering, and construction—with the guidance of more than 4,000 mentors. In 2011, President Barack Obama honored it with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

Thornton earned several awards and accolades during his career. He earned an AISC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. He was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Construction. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) each named him an honorary member, and ASCE also gave him its Outstanding Projects and Leaders Award. The Franklin Institute honored him with the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Civil Engineering. He and Richard Tomasetti earned the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s Fazlur R. Khan Lifetime Achievement Medal.

Outside of work, Thornton was a devoted husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather who enjoyed sailing and painting.