[Source: William C. Thornton, Board Member, Arizona Heritage Alliance] — Our father Charley Thornton was always willing to lend a helping hand and take on a new challenge. To tell dad he couldn’t do something only made him more determined to do it. In 1947 he was asked to help start a wrestling team at the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind. After an inauspicious beginning (on their first outing they lost every match) the program went on to earn international recognition.
For conditioning dad designed and built the first railed running track for the visually impaired. His boys couldn’t wait to try out the new track. Charley later recalled: “The looks on their faces brought tears to my eyes. For the first time in their lives they were running free.” He built the school’s first gymnasium a few years later. School funds were scarce. The track and gym were built entirely with volunteer labor, materials, and donations.
As the boys gained conditioning we began taking them on weekend hikes. The search for greater challenges led to the first rim to rim crossing of the Grand Canyon by blind hikers in 1956. News services picked up the story and Senator Barry Goldwater sent a letter of congratulations. The program produced some champion wrestlers but I’m sure dad would agree that his biggest accomplishment was to give the boys the confidence they needed to succeed after school. Perhaps his greatest tribute came from my old friend Paul Montoya who said: “Charley taught us to say I can instead of I can’t.”
In retirement hiking continued to be a big part of dad’s life. We often hiked in what is now Catalina State Park long before it was a park. We applauded the park’s creation and breathed a big sigh of relief when a creative land swap saved it from development. Dad worked as a park volunteer for several years before his death in 1993. Charley’s bench alongside one of his favorite trails is a wonderful tribute to a simple man who loved the outdoors and made a difference in many lives.
So join the Arizona Heritage Alliance’s tribute to Charley Thornton on Sunday, March 1 at 11 a.m. in Catalina State Park, Tucson AZ 85740, 520-628-5798. There is a Park entrance fee of $6 per vehicle (1-4 adults). Meet at the trailhead, and head down the Sutherland Trail for about one mile. Wear comfortable shoes. Click here for the Catalina State Park website. For more on Charley’s life, click here.