In Memoriam: Charles H. Thornton, Ph.D., S.E. (‘63, ‘66)

Charles H. Thornton

Charles H. Thornton

The entire NYU Tandon School of Engineering community mourns the recent passing of alumnus Charles H. Thornton, Ph.D., S.E., a revered figure in the world of structural engineering and a devoted mentor to generations of young engineers.

Charlie, as he was known to friends and colleagues, was born in the Bronx, with the building industry in his blood: his father, an electrician and bricklayer, served for a time as the Bronx’s chief building inspector. 

After earning a master’s degree in civil engineering and a doctorate in structural mechanics from our university, Thornton went on to work at a company that counted several pavilions at the 1964 World’s Fair and a series of innovative 747 SuperBay hangars among its high-profile projects. He later became one of the founding principals of his own firm, Thornton Tomasetti, which quickly gained renown for such ambitious projects as the Petronas Towers in Malaysia and Taipei 101 in Taiwan (each at one time the tallest building in the world), 30 Hudson Yards in Manhattan, 1 Bennett Park in Chicago, the Wiltshire Grand in Los Angeles, and Federation Tower in Moscow.

Although he was often called one of the most important structural engineers in the world, Thornton was as devoted to the nonprofit he founded as he was to his building projects. The ACE Mentor Program introduces high school students to potential careers in the Architecture, Construction and Engineering industries, and since its founding, in 1994, it has touched the lives of an estimated 10,000 students a year across the country, including some 230 mentored right here at Tandon

In 2011 the program garnered the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from President Barack Obama — just one of the many laurels Thornton held during his lifetime. Others included induction into the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Construction, the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Civil Engineering,  the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Outstanding Projects and Leaders Award, and the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s Fazlur R. Khan Lifetime Achievement Medal, the last of which he shared with his longtime business partner, Richard Tomasetti.

Thornton retired in 2004 to devote himself to his family, sailing, painting, and work on his memoir, A Life of Elegant Solutions, which was published in 2014. In it, he writes: "Engineering, at its core, is about shaping the future .... It is through our collective efforts that we have the power to create structures that not only stand tall but also stand as reminders of human ingenuity."

“Although I did not have the privilege of being here in the 1960s, when Charles Thornton was a student, I am proud that we can count him as an alum,” said Professor Magued Iskander, who chairs NYU Tandon’s Department of Civil and Urban Engineering. “In playing a role in the design and construction of some of the world’s most well-known buildings — and in mentoring countless students seeking to follow in his footsteps — he exemplified all the qualities we hope for in our graduates.”

Our deepest sympathy goes out to the Thornton family, as well as to everyone at Thornton Tomasetti.