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Manuscript Group 404
577 cu. ft.

Richard L. (Dick) Thornburgh was born in Pittsburgh on July 16, 1932, the son of Charles G. and Alice Sanborn Thornburgh. He attended Pittsburgh area schools then Yale University where he earned a degree in engineering in 1954. Thornburgh completed a law degree with honors from the University of Pittsburgh in 1957 and, in 1958, became a member of the Pennsylvania Bar. He soon joined the law firm of Kirkpatrick and Lockhart.

While a practicing attorney Thornburgh was active in Pittsburgh’s civic affairs and made his first attempt at public office by unsuccessfully running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966. He served as a delegate to Pennsylvania’s constitutional convention in 1967-1968 and advocated inclusion of local government home-rule provisions in the revised document. In 1969 the Nixon Administration appointed him as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania when he earned a reputation as an anti-racketeering prosecutor and enforcer of the federal Organized Crime Control Act. Thornburgh held the U.S. Attorney’s post until 1975 when President Ford appointed him Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. He held the post until early 1977 when he returned to private law practice.

Thornburgh then launched a campaign for the governor’s office; an open seat in 1978 as two-term governor Milton Shapp was unable to succeed himself. Thornburgh secured the primary in a race that included Philadelphian Arlen Specter, but was an underdog against Democratic opponent and Pittsburgh Mayor Peter Flaherty. Like Republicans in an earlier era, Democrats had built a solid base in Pennsylvania. Since 1960 statewide Democratic voter registration outpaced the GOP. The gap continued to widen through the 1960s and 1970s and by the time of the 1978 gubernatorial election Democrats held a 900,000-registrant edge. Added to Thornburgh’s difficulties was his own polling that showed him down by thirty-two points about six months before the general election.

In an effort to gain an edge Thornburgh put together a highly organized campaign, raised money, and identified several key campaign themes; ethical and clean government leading among them. This issue resonated well with voters as over 230 officials at all levels of public service in the Keystone State had been convicted of, admitted to, or pleaded no contest to corruption charges between 1970 and 1978 including several individuals in the Shapp Administration. Thornburgh also promised fiscal integrity, another important issue in a state that faced a sliding credit rating and an insolvency approximating $100 million. The GOP candidate challenged Flaherty’s record as Mayor, focused campaign efforts in the East where he was lesser known, and ran with lieutenant governor candidate William W. Scranton, III, whose well-known father had served as governor from 1963 to 1967. Thornburgh also courted non-traditional supporters including organized labor, black and Jewish voters, and Democrats dissatisfied with their party. Despite Flaherty’s counter efforts, Thornburgh won the governorship by a 228,000- vote margin. He won reelection on November 2, 1982 by about 100,000 votes against Democrat Allen Ertel.

A troubled economy plagued Thornburgh from the outset as the state continued its transition away from heavy industry and manufacturing. One quip had it that “the national economy caught a cold; Pennsylvania came down with pneumonia”. The steel industry was particularly hard hit by foreign imports and the relocation of domestic mills. Tens of thousands of union jobs were lost, remaining workers faced wage cuts, and in the Pittsburgh metro area alone the industry’s workforce dropped from 41,500 in 1979 to 19,000 in 1983. When U.S. Steel announced the full or partial closing of 28 facilities in the United States in late 1983, thousands of people in areas like the Monongahela Valley faced long-term unemployment. With the closing of apparel, textile, and other manufacturing facilities, some areas saw double-digit unemployment rates.

In response Thornburgh launched the Ben Franklin Partnership, a well-received alliance between government, private industry, and research universities to foster high-tech enterprises. A Small Business Action Center was created and funding for the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority (PIDA) was quadrupled to attract new employers. The Commonwealth also implemented a customized job training program, a new travel and tourism initiative, and a $20 billion infrastructure improvement program. By the end of his term Thornburgh lay claim to creating 500,000 new jobs, most in service and technology. A reflection of the state’s economic woes remained evident, however, in its unemployment compensation program that had incurred a record $2.7 billion deficit by the early 1980s. Gradual economic improvements and statutory amendments reversed the fund’s negative cash flow by 1984, though its debt would not be eliminated until 1988.

The administration’s fiscal policies resulted in balanced budgets, cuts to both personal and corporate income taxes, creation of a “rainy day” fund, and reductions to the Commonwealth’s long-term indebtedness resulting in better credit ratings. Along with other cost-cutting measures about 15,000 positions were eliminated from the state bureaucracy during his tenure; a move that yielded both lean budgets and criticism from public sector workers and organized labor. There was little disagreement, however, about a new state employee’s code of conduct.

Thornburgh also consolidated state-owned universities into an independent State System of Higher Education and created several “Governor’s Schools” for exceptional high school students. Energy remained high on the agenda as well. In an era of gasoline lines and public skepticism about nuclear energy, the Commonwealth established an Energy Development Authority and examined alternative energy technologies. Revitalizing the coal industry was even explored, though the idea never progressed nor did Thornburgh’s plan to dismantle the state’s liquor control system.

The most significant event during Thornburgh’s tenure was the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg. On March 28, 1979, equipment malfunctions and operator error resulted in a partial meltdown of Unit Two’s reactor core. Several days of uncertainty about the accident’s severity followed. With the guidance of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Thornburgh was able to assess the situation. He ordered a limited evacuation and proved effective at calming public fear. Though the long-term consequences of the accident remain subject to debate, a complete reactor meltdown was averted. Thornburgh also oversaw the development of a comprehensive clean-up plan.

Thornburgh’s lieutenant governor, William W. Scranton, III, narrowly lost the race to succeed him. Robert P. Casey of Lackawanna County took office on January 20, 1987. The former governor taught at Harvard University and directed its Institute of Politics from 1987 to1988, was appointed as U.S. attorney general and served from 1998 to 1991, and served as undersecretary general of the United Nations from 1992 to 1993. He unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania in 1991and currently serves as counsel to Kirkpatrick and Lockhart in Washington, D.C. Governor Thornburgh is married to the former Virginia (Ginny) Judson and has four sons; Peter, David, and John, and William.

Thornburgh's papers include awards and ather materials relating to Thornburgh's service as governor of Pennsylvania from 1979-1987, correspondence, legislative files, news releases, proclamations, reports, speeches and subject files.

PA State Archives Hours, Directions, & Fees Research Topics Finding Aids for Collections Land Records