Thornton’s colleagues and family remember him as an easygoing man whose financial smarts helped modernize The Star and its parent company.
“He was top of the line,” niece Sharon Rutherford said. “They just don’t make people like that any more.”
Often frugal, always thoughtful and — in the words of company president Phillip A. Sanguinetti — “honest as the day is long,” Thornton began as an accountant at the paper in January 1954 and retired as treasurer in December 2004.
Throughout that nearly 51-year career at Consolidated Publishing, Thornton did big things. He helped set up the company-wide pension plan, said Sanguinetti, who worked alongside him from 1962 until the day Thornton retired. He formalized financial procedures and paid time off for employees. He was instrumental in bringing the various publications across Calhoun and Talladega counties under one roof, remembered Roger Sawyer, the former production director at The Star.
“His conservativeness was what made The Star what it was,” Sawyer said. “He kept a good set of books; nobody ever found something major that was wrong with his books.”
Those who worked with Thornton easily recall how he first came to The Star, eventually becoming the face of its financial department. Sanguinetti said Thornton, a Pell City native, loved to tell the story about how he first worked for an accounting firm in Gadsden that was responsible for auditing The Star.
After he audited the company books, he was impressed enough with its finances that “he actually made the statement if he ever went to work for someone else, he’d like to go to work for The Star,” Sawyer said. Thornton did just that on Jan. 1, 1954, becoming what Sanguinetti called the company’s first professional accountant.
The Star had had bookkeepers before, the company president remembered, “but certainly not to the professionalism that Al Thornton was.”
For the next half of a century, he served the company well as the hard-working, sharp-eyed guardian of its money.
Rutherford, who worked with her uncle during her years in The Star’s advertising department, said Thornton’s devotion to his company made his whole family proud.
One of eight siblings, Thornton was a bachelor at the time of his death, Rutherford said. Thornton had some hobbies that were important to him, she said. He liked to garden, had beautiful rose bushes and could beat Rutherford at checkers even when he was in the grips of his disease. But his career — and the honesty, the hard work he put into it — defined her uncle, she said.
“His whole life was The Star; he had its best interests at heart managing its money,” she said. “He wouldn’t even take a pencil home.”
He also served his colleagues well as a man who knew how to tell a story, who understood the value in reminiscing.
Sawyer recalled that when Star employees made the move from the old building downtown to the new facility on McClellan Boulevard, Thornton refused to buy new office furniture.
He wanted to keep his old desk and chair, Sawyer said, because of the story behind them: Col. Harry M. Ayers, longtime editor and publisher of the paper, used that furniture himself during the paper’s earlier days.
“He liked to keep things that meant something — to try to preserve the past,” Sawyer said.
Indeed, some of the comments Thornton made himself in a 2004 article about his retirement reveal his appreciation for the past. He first grew to love The Star as a student at Auburn University, where he stacked the papers in the library each morning as part of his job as a student worker.
He read The Star, Thornton said in the 2004 article, because it was his grandfather’s hometown newspaper. He continued to do so at the University of Alabama, where he completed his degree.
That nostalgia coupled with a genuine respect for other people made Thornton a pleasure to be around, his colleagues agree. He was supportive and upbeat, encouraging.
Sawyer can still remember how it felt when Thornton hired him in 1987 as part of the accounting department’s IT team.
“He was so positive,” the former production director said. “He was the kind of guy who got out of your way and let you do your job.”
Still, Sanguinetti recalled, Thornton wasn’t afraid to do his own — or to let coworkers know when they weren’t being prudent with company dollars. No one changed Thornton’s mind — or his honesty — when it came to finances, Sanguinetti said.
“If he thought you were doing something out of line in terms of finances, he was like a dog with a bone,” Sanguinetti said. “It didn’t make any difference who you were.”
The Consolidated Publishing president chuckled as he remembered Thornton’s steely resolve.
“Sometimes it was a pain in the neck: He made me pay for some things that I didn’t think I should pay for,” Sanguinetti said with that same hint of amusement.
In a more serious tone, he expressed regret to hear of Thornton’s death.
“It’s a great loss for the paper and the community,” he said.
Rutherford noted Thornton would’ve turned 90 on Aug. 25. Family members had already planned a 90th birthday party.
The visitation for Thornton will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Gray Brown-Service Mortuary in Anniston. The funeral begins at 11 a.m., Rutherford said.