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Politics and Government

Two-term Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh Dies at 88

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Paul Vathis
/
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH, Dec. 31, 2020  -- Dick Thornburgh, former Pennsylvania Governor, U.S. attorney general and under-secretary-general of the United Nations, died peacefully of natural causes Thursday in Pittsburgh. He was 88. The governor's public career spanned 25 years, and he retired earlier in 2020 as counsel to the international law firm of K&L Gates LLP.

His wife, Ginny Judson Thornburgh, said that he had endured declining health to the end with "characteristic determination, grace and humor."

"Governor Thornburgh was the consummate public servant – honest, competent and caring," said William W. Scranton III, who served from 1979-1986 as lieutenant governor in two terms of the Thornburgh-Scranton Administration. "I was proud to serve at his side. He loved politics but never let that stop him from doing the right thing. The nation could use more of his kind in elective office."

As the father of a son with significant disability, he played a leadership role as U.S. attorney general in enacting the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

When the bill was signed into law on July 26, 1990, Thornburgh called the day "one of emancipation, not just for the millions of Americans with disabilities who will directly benefit from this Act, but even more so for the rest of us now free to benefit from the contributions which those with disability can make to our economy, our communities and our own well-being."

"The day was a high point of my tenure as attorney general," he wrote in his 2003 autobiography, "Where the Evidence Leads."

But Thornburgh was perhaps best known for his handling – 72 days after assuming the governor's office – of the March 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, the first such event of its kind in the history of commercial nuclear power.

"Governor Thornburgh has done a superlative job," said President Jimmy Carter, during a visit to Three Mile Island. "Because of the trust of the American people in him, and particularly those who live in this region, potential panic and disturbance has been minimized."

After leaving office, Thornburgh was appointed director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Shortly thereafter, President Ronald Reagan appointed him to succeed Edwin Meese as U.S. attorney general. Thornburgh served in that office from 1988 through 1991 under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

After serving in the Bush administration, Thornburgh was appointed Under-Secretary-General for Administration at the United Nations.

Upon leaving the UN in 1993, Mr. Thornburgh returned to private practice with K&L Gates LLC.