June 2, 2020

Melvin Chandler Thornton

Professor Melvin Chandler Thornton

July 2, 1935-May 30, 2020

Mel was born in Sioux City, IA to parents Phil and Ruth Thornton. The family moved to Storm Lake, Iowa, where Mel grew up living a block from the lake and enjoyed sailing with his twin brother and friends in a boat they bought and renovated.

Mel graduated from Storm Lake High in 1953 and received a Navy Scholarship to the University of Nebraska, where he majored in mathematics and met his future wife, Rosemary.  After graduation in 1957 Mel spent two years in the Navy, serving as an LTJG on the Calvert, a troop transport ship. He and Rosemary were married in 1958.

After the Navy the couple moved to Champaign, IL, where Mel studied mathematics at the U of Illinois, earning a PhD in math. Meanwhile, three boys were born before the family moved to Madison, WI, where Mel taught at the University of Wisconsin and their daughter was born. Mel’s last stop was the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

He flourished at UNL. His passion for mathematics inspired his students’ learning. He reached beyond traditional university students with his leadership of the Nebraska Math Scholars and Western Math Scholars, teacher enhancement programs for secondary mathematics teachers. For these programs and others, in 1995 Mel was inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers. In the previous year, 1993-94 UNL selected him for the Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Activity Award. His teaching also brought him recognition from the Carnegie Foundation in 1994 as Nebraska Professor of the Year.

In 2000 Mel retired. He and his wife then spent 20 years living in two places: their Lincoln home and a log cabin on the prairie near Valentine, Neb., where Mel honed his building skills to finish the inside of the cabin. He and Rosemary spent their retirement traveling, visiting their children in the four time zones and canoeing or kayaking on the nearby Niobrara National Scenic River.

 Along with his wife and children, Mel was a member of the First United Methodist Church. The two also were working members of Friends of the Niobrara and Nebraska Wildlife Federation. Throughout his life Mel was a helper, a builder and a fixer, always willing to pay attention to others’ needs or problems. As a husband and father he was the best.

Survivors include wife, Rosemary Thornton, Lincoln; son, Jeff Thornton and wife Karen and grandchildren, Nolan, Declan and Charlotte, Croton-on-Hudson, NY; Joel Thornton and wife Melissa and grandchildren Cammy, Cara and Cade, Dallas;

Jay Thornton and wife Crystal and grandchildren Rosemary and Madeline, Seattle; daughter Jennifer Thornton-Kolbe and husband Charles and grandchildren Emma, Evan and Elias, Denver.  Other survivors are twin brother, Manly Thornton and wife Peg of Elkhart, IN; sister Mary Ruth Turner, Iowa City; brother-in-law Gary Weeks and wife Jane of Guthrie OK.; sister-in-law E.J. Weeks Omaha and many nieces and nephews. A private graveside service will be held for Mel. If you wish to honor Mel by a donation, you may send it to the Melvin Thornton Family for future designation.


  1. I am so sorry to hear this. Mel and Rosemary purchased their Sparks property from me. I have many memories of visits with them in their beautiful home, and the hard work they performed on their property to make it more wildfire resistant. My heartfelt condolences go out to the family.

  2. I want to express my sympathy to Mel’s family, and to the UNL Math Department where he had so many friends and colleagues who will share the sense of loss. Mel made so many contributions to the teaching of math, both at UNL and far beyond.

  3. Pam and I send our condolences to the Thornton family. Mel was such a great colleague to we education faculty. A sense of joy was always evident as he taught his students and collaborated with us on projects. Before football games we’d see he and Rosemary watching the NU Marching Band rehearsal. We will miss Mel!

  4. Mel was a real gem. I enjoyed my time on the Friends of the Museum Board with Mel at UNL.

  5. My condolences to Mel Thornton’s family. Although I did not know him myself, I knew his name from my late father, Royce Ronning, who valued him as a friend and a colleague. I am sorry to hear of his death.

  6. Mel was a friendly, kind human being and students were drawn to him! He was an outstanding teacher and faculty member and greatly respected by his peers. He loved his family! Our deepest sympathy to his dear family and lovely Rosemary. He will not be forgotten. Tess and David Logan

  7. Mel was a person who “made a difference” to those around him and his community – including many many people who will never know what he did for them. Of particular note is what he did to help create and support the Niobrara National Scenic River. On behalf of all the park rangers and staff at Niobrara National Scenic River, know that we will miss him and we thank him for what he did and stood for, and most importantly, who he was.

  8. I was so very saddened to learn of Mel’s passing. He was truly a treasure to this world and to the thousands of students he mentored. His teaching accolades were well deserved, and his contributions to the ADAPT Program, Centennial Program,
    and the Academy of Distinguished Teachers were always in support of student learning. I was so pleased when he became the Nebraska Professor of the Year.
    Even after retirement he continued to work to make this a better world with his
    and Rosemary’s work in nature conservation. I will always appreciate having the opportunity to know Mel and Rosemary, and to count them as my friends. Mel will be greatly missed.

  9. Our thoughts are with Rosemary. She and Mel worked with us many years on National Wildlife Week and the NeWF Board. He will be greatly missed. We are sending a memorial to Leave a Legacy at NeWF in his name!

  10. Mel Thornton was a Prince of a man, ideal husband and father and friend.
    Not only a Professor recognized by his peers, but a craftsman who would not refuse any project, big or small. He was a superb dialogic partner, whether about academic subjects or day today items. The beauty of his mind and heart will be sorely missed by his lifetime partner,
    Rosemary, and each of their four children. One could ask for no better friend. He will be missed beyond imagining.

  11. I just read the news of Dr. Thornton’s passing in the fall publishing of the University of Nebraska’s Math News. My sincere condolences to the family. I was one of Dr. Thornton’s advisees while working on my MAT in Mathematics and also one of the secondary teachers that participated in the Western Mathematics Scholars Program a few years later. It was my pleasure to have him as a role model and an educator that truly loved teaching.

  12. I am saddened to learn of Mel’s passing. He was a mentor for me during the Nebraska Math Scholars and beyond. His enthusiasm for mathematics was present in everything. What a special person!


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