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Remembering Bill Thornton


Bill Thornton with his Lifetime Achievement Award.

Submitted by Nettie Oliverio

No one could hang around Bill Thornton very long without going for a walk with him. He would walk anywhere, but his favored strolls were around Reno’s downtown streets. Ever the teacher, Bill would remark on the history of this or that – buildings and houses, the Wingfield Amphitheater, bridges, parks, benches in parks, bodies of water, commemorative plaques – with an amazing memory for dates, events, and people with sweet and sometimes heartbreaking stories.

As he’d stroll along he would be greeted by those he passed and return the greeting, asking about the individual, their family, a recent activity in their lives. Bill knew many of Reno’s homeless and quasi-homeless by name and they knew him, some referring to him as Mr. Thornton, but most simply called him Bill. He most often had a couple of dollars to give, but he also had conversation.

He knew the talented sax player who hung out on City Plaza and earned his dinner with his melodies. He knew the rock artist who used river stones to create animals. And he saw each one as a person, a unique individual. He saw them, human spirit to human spirit. And they saw him.

UNR Marching Band
UNR’s marching band. Photo: Ty O’Neil

Bill also had a lifelong passion for the arts. In 2018 EDAWN and Sierra Arts celebrated that passion by presenting Bill with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his decades of support for the growth of arts in Reno.

In reflecting on the areas of arts Bill promoted, it’s easy to see the overlay of his interest in humanity. The music he supported – the UNR Marching Band, the concerts on the UNR Quad, the Reno Municipal Band noon concerts in Wingfield Park and others – was accessible music.

Anyone, rich or poor, local or visitor, could enjoy the music and it was always produced in an open arena where people could gather as community.

Bill’s support of local theaters including the Pioneer Center, Wingfield Amphitheater and other smaller venues fostered bringing the community together for entertainment and storytelling. Shared experiences.

As an early supporter of the Lear Theater project, Bill knew what a gift that venue would be to Reno’s downtown, both for the shared community entertainment it would provide and the historic building revitalized in the process.

We see each other in the art.”

Reno Star

Public Art, the creation and placement of it, tantalized Bill. An art lover for many decades, Bill recognized the benefits gained from that unique surprise piece discovered on a walk or drive. His Tree Trout fish carved into the limbs of a riverside cottonwood elicited smiles and pointed fingers from walkers strolling on the north side of the Truckee. When the tree came down, Bill saw that the fish were given a new life encased in mosaic tiles and perched above the water in Idlewild Park.

Repurposed materials from a wind-damaged art piece became the Reno Star and Bill worked tirelessly to help the city fund it.

When asked why it mattered, why public art was important to him, he simply said, “Art is a part of life. Sharing it in a public setting brings us together as people. We see each other in the art.”

In honor of his memory, here’s hoping we in our community always see each other. There will be a Celebration of Life event on Sunday, November 24, at the National Automobile Museum on Lake Street, from 4:00 pm – 7:00 pm.

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