Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tish Thornton

My alumni magazine came in the mail yesterday and as always it was quite enjoyable, until I reached the last few pages and some news that made me immediately reach for the tissues.  I am not sure how I missed hearing of it, to be honest. Because a woman who was a profound influence on me passed away. 

I did the last 2 years of my degree at St. Thomas University, a liberal arts university in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  It was the finest 2 years of learning I ever had.  I always felt like it was about growing minds and expanding horizons and fuelling enthusiasm.  Two professors stand out as being incredibly influential and I dare say I might not have had the confidence to write if not for them.  The first was Fenton Burke, who died a while ago, making me reflect on memories of sitting in his various classes, enjoying his dry wit and love of literature and a fair amount of Maritime salt.  The second was quite a contrast - statuesque, elegant Tish Thornton, who was scary-smart, put together, and might have been quite intimidating if it hadn't been for a soul deep love of literature and a wonderful tendency to push - and encourage - her students.  She always had an open door if I wanted a chat or had a question. She was the kind of professor who motivated me to want to do my best for her.  I never wanted to be responsible for disappointing Professor Thornton.

Tish Thornton-Bird died in March.

Tish Thornton taught me American Lit and opened my mind to Edith Wharton and Hemingway and Faulkner. She taught me Women's Lit - Kate Chopin and Virginia Woolf, Austen and Dickenson.  She also taught me Creative Writing.  She encouraged me to enter a Postcard Story contest (which I won) and the first money I ever made as a writer was The Creative Writing Prize the year I graduated from university for a collection of poetry I'd written.  The money disappeared long ago.  I still have the letter with her signature that was presented to me during Convocation.

Tish Thornton also made it possible for me to attend the Maritime Writers Conference at the University of New Brunswick that summer - on a scholarship.

Sometimes I wonder if educators really understand the lasting effects they have on their students.  How their encouragement helps set someone along their path.  I stopped writing for a long time, but the love and desire remained and when I picked up pen (or keyboard again) those past "victories" gave me the confidence to try again, even if it was only to rediscover the joy of creating worlds and characters and happy endings.  I have always been so grateful that I finished my degree at STU and that I had such wonderful professors.

Knowing Tish is gone feels a little like someone blowing out a candle.  And I wish I'd had the chance to thank her in person after all these years.


  1. The way I see it, Donna - she'll know from her new vantage point just how big a difference she made in your life.

  2. I agree with Julia, Donna - and what a lovely tribute you've paid her.

  3. What a lovely tribute. I think we all have "teachers" who influenced us and made the subjects they taught so interesting. I had a German teacher who hated teaching German but loved to talk history. Caroline x

  4. Hi Donna,

    My name is Jane (Thornton) Rumball... I am Tish's youngest daughter. Thank you for your moving tribute about my mom. I never met any of her students, but when I was younger I used to sit on her bed and "help" her mark essays by circling grammatical errors with a red pen! I loved it. My mom was my hero and my inspiration, and it is a huge, huge loss.
    Your blog entry was emailed to me, and it was a beautiful gift to receive. Your words are eloquent and graceful, and I know my mom would be very proud to have been a good influence for you.

    Thank you.

  5. Dear Donna, Thanks so much for remembering my sister Tish so kindly and so eloquently.

    I too was a teacher and talked with Tish of just this sentiment in one of our last conversations. Believe me, she knew that there were many former students out there who valued her contributions. She would've loved your tribute and I am sure she is smiling now to be so fondly remembered.

    I too have fond memories of Fenton who hired me to teach English at STU.

    Let this be a prompt to you to take the opportunity to thank some of those pivotal people who played such roles in your life.

    The STU Reunion is this weekend, as you probably know. I am sure there will be many a tear shed as alumni come to realize we have lost someone who taught and mentored with the heart of St. Thomas.

    Just today on the street in Fredericton another former student of Tish's expressed the same sentiments and shock as she likewise found out from Connections about Tish's passing.

    May I share your tribute with friends and family? I know Tish would be so proud to have such fine things said of her.

    Thank you so much for sharing. Sincerely, Peter Pacey

  6. Peter and Jane, I am so pleased you stopped by.

    Peter, can you believe that until I read it in Connections I didn't realize Tish was your sister? I remember quite fondly Calithumpian performances and how many of my high school friends were involved. Fenton was in a class of his own. I have often laughed over how he began each class asking if we had "comments, questions...observations?" He had a devilish smile that lit up the room. Both Fenton and Tish are greatly missed.

    Jane - one thing I DID know was how much Tish loved her daughters. She spoke of you often and with such pride. I am so sorry for your loss. My condolences to your family.

  7. Wonderful tribute to your former educator. She was a remarkable woman to influence so many people.

  8. Donna, this post brought tears to my eyes. I remember special teachers in my own past, like Mrs. Ashley, my Grade 7 teacher, who read a poem of mine and said "If you can write like this now, you'll be published someday." She'll never know how those few casually spoken words stayed with me. As Julia said, I'm sure Tish Thornton knows now how much she meant to you.

  9. Sounds like she was an awesome teacher :)