Sunday, February 22, 2015

William Thornton

Last July I started writing about my Uncle Bill but never finished my story. Born May 1, 1913, he was the first-born of Roy Clinton Thornton and Anna Mae Rouse and was a proud union leader, helping to secure better wages and conditions. From his father's obituary, we know that in January 1937, as a 23-year-old man, he had a WPA job.  WPA stood for "Works Progress Administration."  This was the largest and most ambitious American New Deal agency, employing millions of unemployed individuals, mostly unskilled men, to carry out public works projects, including construction of public buildings and roads. Almost every community in the U.S. had a new park, bridge, or school constructed by the agency. At its peak in 1938, it provided jobs for three million unemployed men and women, and between 1935 and 1943, the WPA provided almost eight million jobs.

In 1940 he was living in the household of his mother and is stepfather, Ira Butler. He was listed as a "new worker," having worked 39 weeks in 1940. No information was provided on where he was working.  I have not been able to find any information on military service.  He must have gone to work soon after at  Firestone Tire in Des Moines. I have been told he helped secure a job for my dad there sometime in the mid to later 1940s.  Bill never married and in 1954 he purchased a home at 2800 East 25th in Des Moines for him and his mother.

While employed at Firestone, he became very involved in Local 310 URWA.  At the time of his death, almost 1,000 miles away in Winchester, Virginia 400 workers at the O'Sullivan Rubber Company voted to strike on May 13, 1956 to preserve their union.  Bill was well known throughout Iowa and the International Union for his outstanding work as Local 310's special O'Sullivan representative.

Bill died on Tuesday, November 26, 1957, two days before Thanksgiving. An article titled "Death Claims Three Outstanding Labor Representatives This Week" in the December 6, 1957 edition of "The Iowa Federationist," detailed two other active unionists, dying within days of Bill, all three of them of heart attacks. The Rev. Roy H. Mills, pastor of Easton Place Methodist church and Chaplain of the Polk County Labor council died of a heart attack Thanksgiving afternoon, November 28. Rev. Mills suffered a heart attack at his home. Rev. Mr. Mills was known as the man behind the movement to bring labor and religion together in Des Moines.  Robert J. Myers died of a heart attack on Sunday, November 31 at Mercy Hospital. He was the business representative of district No. 118 of the International Association of Machinists and had been past president of the Solar Aircraft Lodge. He was a delegate to the Polk County Labor council. The story on Bill reads:

Thornton
 
Local 310 URWA suffered a severe loss in the sudden death of William Thornton on November 26.
 
"Bill" had been a member of the local since its organization in October, 1945. He served the local union in several capacities, including steward, convention delegate, executive board member and special representative. His services as board member will be hard to replace, as Bill brought a keen insight into the problems that were part of board deliberations.
 
He was best known throughout Iowa and the International Union for his outstanding work as Local 310's special O'Sullivan representative. On this special assignment bill made many more friends among shoe repairmen and Union representatives. The job he did brought him recognition by the International Union. His complete report on the contacts he made was used by the International as a model for reports from other representatives.
 
Bill died of a heart attack at the age of 44. He is survived by his mother, Mrs. Anna M. Thornton; four brothers Carl, Kenneth, and Russell of Des Moines, and Virgil of Louisville, Kentucky; two sisters, Mrs. Gladys Loghry and Mrs. Alta Johnson, both of Des Moines.
 
Bill served as a delegate from Local 310 to the Polk County Labor council and had one of the best attendance records of any delegate. His friends, numbering in the hundreds, were all deeply shocked by his sudden death and extended their sympathy to his family.
 
One of the finest tributes paid Bill was by a fellow worker who said, "I made more people mad at me in one night than Bill did in his whole life."
 
Bill was a member of the East Gate Masonic Lodge No. 630. The funeral was conducted by Rev. Harry L. Herlein of the Miller Evangelical United Brethren church. East Gate Lodge and Ascalon Chapter No. 139 conducted the masonic funeral service.
 
What I found interesting (and perhaps suspicious) was that all union leaders (1) died of heart attacks (2) within five days of each other and (3) all three had connections to the Polk County Labor council.
 
Right below the story about death claiming the three outstanding labor representatives was a story titled "O'Sullivan Workers Get turkey Dinners Despite 18-Month Strike."  Local AFL-CIO unions in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. contributed the complete turkey dinners and it took over six hours to distribute the food donations. The article stated that contributions from the Retail Clerks alone amounted to 500 full shopping bags of groceries--two for every family. 

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