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by John Gagnon, promotional writer
“Service is the rent we pay to occupy the earth,” said Otha Thornton Tuesday night when he addressed about fifty people on an ethic of leadership that focuses on helping others.
“Take care of your people,” the popular military man counseled the group of mostly students. “Listen to your people.” Such service, he said, “can lead to great things.”
It was Thornton’s first trip back to Tech since helping lead the Army ROTC program from 1999 to 2001, when he also earned a master’s degree in rhetoric and technical communication. He will return to campus in May as Spring Commencement speaker.
He is visiting Tech in part to participate in Black History Month. He is scheduled to speak at noon today, Thursday, Feb. 26, about what the military means to African Americans. The session is at noon in the Memorial Union Red Metal Room. The King-Chavez-Parks Visiting Scholars Program, through the Office of Institutional Diversity, supported Thornton’s visit, as did Omicron Delta Kappa, the national student leadership society.
Thornton, a lieutenant colonel, joined the army simply to serve his country for four years. He says that the opportunities have stretched that stint to 20 years. “No regrets,” he said.
His duties have taken him from Hawaii to Upper Michigan, from Germany to Washington DC, where he now works as a presidential communications officer in the White House Communications Agency, located in the Executive Office Building. The agency numbers 1,200 people. He supervises 26.
He has had such duties as traveling to Arizona as part of an advance team to set up all the communications for a fundraising visit by former president Bush on behalf of John McCain during the run for president. In his two years in his current position, he has worked directly on four presidential events.
Asked how he felt about a black president, Thornton responded: “If you work hard and have your things in order, America is a great land of opportunity.”
When he was stationed in Texas, Thornton, a native of Georgia, was overjoyed to get orders for the ROTC program at Georgia Tech. At the last minute, his assignment switched to Michigan Tech.
He looked up Upper Michigan on the web and found out the winter would be the same as he had encountered in northern Japan: cold and snow, which he hated. He begged, “I’ll go to Kuwait. I’ll go to Korea–anyplace but northern Michigan.” His pleas were unanswered, and he was bummed. Then he came to Michigan Tech. “I’m glad I did. It was wonderful. The people are so friendly.” He singled out Associate Professor Patricia Sotirin and Professor Robert Johnson.
Early in his career, Thornton was in intelligence. Lately, he has been in human resources. In May he will go to Afghanistan as a personnel officer, basically helping to direct the “flow of people” who are being deployed there as part of the surge in the number of troops being sent to that country. He will leave behind two children, one in high school and one in college, and his wife, Caryn, a high school administrator.
It’ll be his first posting in a war zone, if you don’t count anti-drug and anti-human trafficking operations in Latin America.
He takes his new duty in stride, for he believes that where he is, is where he’s supposed to be.
His community service includes the National Board of Directors of the Parent Teacher Association and the Boy Scouts.
He told the students that, despite the ailing economy, there are many job opportunities in government and the military. He personally knows a dozen Tech alumni who work in the National Security Agency.
One student at Thornton’s speech definitely got message. Joe Scheinkoenig, a senior in electrical engineering from Waukesha, Wis., and a member of ODK, summed up the gist of the presentation: “You should put your workers first, then what you need from them will come.”
The Graduate School is accepting nominations for Summer and Fall 2009 Doctoral Finishing Fellowships. The Graduate School anticipates funding up to 10 fellowships per semester with support ranging from $2,000 to full support (stipend plus tuition).
Applications are due Monday, March 16th at 4pm in the Graduate School.
Full details can be found in Tech Today or on the web.