Laird Thornton became a household name in the Federal Way music community due to his humility, his love, and his ability to hold vocalists to high standards — those which he knew they could achieve.
Kathie Thornton remembers when she heard her late husband, Laird, sing for the first time. Though the specific event details have faded, Laird, then 18, was asked to sing the national anthem at Pacific University.
“His beautiful voice filled the room and the audience was totally entranced,” she told the Mirror. “He sang with conviction, making up words about halfway through. Only one or two of us realized what had happened.”
Laird Thornton, beloved music educator at Thomas Jefferson High School and Federal Way Chorale director, died Feb. 15 at age 66 at his home in Renton. His death has proven to be a great loss with ripples felt far beyond the Federal Way community.
Thornton spent 30 years at TJHS, retiring in 2019. In addition, he dedicated 28 years at Grace Lutheran Church as the director of choral music, and nearly 15 years with the Federal Way Chorale as the artistic director.
His death has given way to an out pour of community remembrances, a collective mourning of a man who left an impact on hundreds of budding vocalists and musical professionals throughout his lifetime.
Thornton is the Mirror’s Hometown Hero for the month of March, the Mirror’s first-ever posthumous award.
He did more than just share his love of music through his own performances and through his work with others in the community, Kathie Thornton said.
He did more than just teach students about vocal technique and music theory or how to sing. He did more than just teach performers how to act, sing in a group, or how to create pictures on a stage.
“He taught each and every one of his students — young and old — that they were valued and loved. That they belonged. He didn’t expect perfection, but he did expect each singer to always do the very best they could,” Kathie Thornton said. He taught the power of passion and pursuing your dreams, no matter how big or small, she said.
Thornton earned his bachelor’s degree in music in performing arts in 1976 at Pacific University, where he also met Kathie. (The couple celebrated 47 years of marriage last December and raised seven children together). He then attended University of Southern California, graduating with a master’s degree in vocal arts in 1981. After a move to Washington state, Thornton attended the University of Washington in Seattle, where he earned his teaching certificate and pursued a second master’s degree in choral conducting in 1989.
A magnetic presence on stage, Thornton performed with the Seattle Opera, Tacoma Opera and Kitsap Opera, and took to musical theater in the early 1990s with the Puget Sound Musical Theatre, among others. This love translated into the role as a music educator at Thomas Jefferson High School, where he instructed chamber ensemble, concert choir, drama and musical theater — and created an award-winning musical theater program.
“One of his many, many talents was the ability to see in people talents that they didn’t even know existed within themselves,” said Brianne Wylie, a former student of Thornton’s from 2009-2012.
Wylie, who pursued a professional theater career and became a working actor in New York City, credits her change of course in life to “T” — the nickname many lovingly called Thornton.
“He saw the budding confidence of a young performer and kindled that tiny ember into a blazing bonfire,” Wylie said. “He was an absolute wealth of advice, stories, knowledge and warmth … He didn’t sugarcoat things, but he was always my number one fan.”
Thornton’s rich life provided him with the knowledge and experiences he generously passed onto others, and for that, Wylie said, “he was magic; he is magic … I was so lucky. We all were.”
Dozens of former students echoed these sentiments in recent weeks upon learning of his death. Thornton’s love cascaded onto others in the form of confidence and encouragement, and most of all, belief in what others were capable of doing.
In 2019, hundreds of current and past students, friends, colleges and family members gathered to celebrate the legacy of Thornton by hosting a three-and-a-half-hour retirement concert in his honor. Throughout the night, Kathie Thornton recalled, he smiled and asked, “How did this happen? Why did this happen?”
Thornton’s leadership made defining impacts with Grace Lutheran Church of Des Moines and the Federal Way Chorale.
“Laird came for an interview and, we had no idea at the time, but we learned over the years just how valuable he would be to us,” said Jack Lyon, who was on the committee that hired Thornton for the Grace Lutheran Church position in the 1990s. Lyon was also a member of Most Happy Fellows quartet, the 1997 Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Quartet Champion.
“He emphasized it’s our job to lift up people who listen to us,” Lyon said. “He was a great family man, well-loved in the community and a quality person to begin with, along with being an expert choral director.”
He loved his family fiercely and always encouraged his children to love unconditionally, to be passionate, and to always be there for one another, said his daughter Kirsten Thornton. In December 2020, Thornton took on the important role of Santa Claus for Kirsten’s two-year-old son, a memory that will become a Christmas staple, she said.
By words and actions, he taught kindness, respect, positivity and the importance of always supporting and helping one another; having courage and believing in oneself.
“And ‘his children’ spread their wings and flew all over the world, following their dreams and sharing the things he taught them,” Kathie Thornton said. “That is his legacy.”
The Laird M. Thornton Memorial Scholarship Fund
In honor of his life and legacy, the Thornton family has created a scholarship fund at Kathryn and Laird’s alma mater, Pacific University in Oregon.
The family hopes to raise at least $25,000 for an endowment to provide $1,000 a year in scholarships. However, the personal goal of Kerrie Thornton, one of Laird’s daughters, is to raise $50,000 because “that way we can do more.”
Donations can be provided directly to Pacific University by mail (checks payable to Pacific University for the Laird Thornton Scholarship to Pacific University, UC Box A-162, 2043 College Way, Forest Grove, OR 97116), gifted via phone (call Jan Stricklin at 503-352-2890), or online at pacificu.edu/give/support-laird-m-thornton-memorial-scholarship-fund.