Chapter 1: Thornburghs Become a Family
22:56:29:00 - 22:58:23:21
And I will just introduce the interview by saying my name is Lisa Sonneborn, and I'm conducting an interview with Mrs. Ginny Thornburgh at the Offices of the American Association of People with Disabilities in Washington, D.C., on November 16, 2011. Also present is our videographer, Lindsey Martin, and Mrs. Thornburgh, do I have your permission to begin recording our interview?
Ginny: Now I didn't -- stop -- I could not hear you.
Lisa: Oh, okay. Do I have your permission to begin recording the interview?
Ginny: Yes, of course, yes.
Lisa: Ginny, you're a native New Yorker, born in Westchester County, Hastings and Hudson.
Lisa: I'm wondering if your commitment to public service beckons back to your time, your growing up with your family. Was there a commitment to public service in your family?
Ginny: Interesting. As a little girl, I was always for the underdog, and why that happened or how that happened, I'm not sure, but so that was sort of in my bones. I did some volunteer work, but I think it was more just I remember in first grade, a child who was from an orphanage, whom I worried about, and I had this fantasy that I would bring her home and my mother would bathe her and give her new clothes, and of course that never happened, but I think that was a part of me -- concern about others -- that came from my genes and came from my mother and father, and just a part of me.
22:58:23:00 - 22:59:44:26
Lisa: You graduated from Harvard with a master's degree in education, and in 1963, I believe you were teaching elementary school, the third grade, in Lincoln, Massachusetts. You had made several plans to travel to Ghana to teach English, but that didn't happen.
Ginny: That was with Operation Crossroads Africa, which was a wonderful program, and I, at that point in my life, wanted to save the world. I'm sure you understand that, Lisa, and I had my mosquito netting and I'd had all my shots, and I was learning how you teach English when you don't share a language, which is a specific program. And I went to be a bridesmaid in a wedding in Pittsburgh, and I was looking forward to it, because this was my college roommate when I met Dick Thornburgh, and obviously didn't go to Africa, and didn't continue teaching in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Upon meeting him for one weekend, I knew I was in love, and he claims the same thing. It was one of those very quick, full, wonderful romances.
22:59:45:27 - 23:01:03:17
Lisa: Before you met Mr. Thornburgh, what did you envision your life would be? As you said, you had your mosquito netting and your shots -- what did you envision for yourself at that time?
Ginny: Gosh, Lisa, I was going to teach and I enjoyed teaching tremendously, although first year teachers are never very good, and just wanted to serve in an undefined way. I was in love with a boy, man, another person, had been, and we'd broken up, and at one point I thought I might be a nurse, and then that ended when we broke up. So I wasn't sure, I didn't have clear plans for myself, except I welcomed diversity, I wasn't afraid of travel. I had been in 1956, when I was 16 years old, a foreign exchange student for the summer to Istanbul, Turkey, and I lived with a Muslim family then. So I welcomed adventure, but no clear plan for my life until I met Dick Thornburgh.
Lisa: And you certainly got adventure when you met Mr. Thornburgh.
Ginny: And please refer to him as Dick.
Lisa: Certainly, thank you.
23:01:03:15 - 23:04:25:20
Lisa: So when you met Dick, he had three very young sons, John, David, and Peter.
Ginny: That's right, Lisa.
Lisa: They were from his previous marriage.
Lisa: One of his children had a disability.
Lisa: And the family had experienced a terrible tragedy only a few years before you met Dick, and I wondered if you could tell us about that a bit.
Ginny: I will, Lisa. In 1960, July 1, 1960, summer day that changed everything, our first mom -- I refer to myself as our second mom, and I honor our first mom as she should be honored -- died in an automobile accident in Pittsburgh, and in that accident, our three sons, John, then two and a half, David, one and a half, and Peter, four months, were in the car. Peter was killed and John and David also received wounds from that terrible crash. So that was just unthinkable, unthinkable, and Dick then became a single parent --
Lisa: Ginny, may I stop you?
Lisa: You said, I think, Peter was killed, meaning I think you meant to say that Ginny was killed?
Ginny: I did, I did. It's such an emotional thing talking about it, I apologize. You're right, our first mom, who was also named Ginny, Ginny was killed in the accident and Peter was seriously injured, brain injured, and he was taken immediately to Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, and we credit -- Dick and I credit -- Mercy Hospital, specifically the Sisters of Mercy, with the excellent care he received.
He was there six months, which -- very, very I think indicate the extent of his injury.
Dick would visit his son, who was then five months, six months, seven months, eight months of age, and when he visited, Peter would be held in the arms of the Sisters of Mercy, who would be filling out their charts or having a clinical meeting, but Peter was always held and loved and cared for.
One time, one of the sisters said to Dick, who was visiting often, Mr. Thornburgh, you need to go home and take care of your other two sons. We are taking care of Peter. We'll let you know every single time there's progress, or not progress, but you need to be home more. So that was a wonderful, freeing moment for Dick.
Our sons -- we had somebody helping them, a wonderful woman helping them, and so Dick began a long and lonely journey, being the parent of three sons, which lasted for three years.
Peter came home Christmas Eve, and the joy as Dick talks about it, having his sons united again, is palpable when you talk to him.
23:04:27:27 - 23:07:55:27
Lisa: Ginny, you and Dick married six months after you met, and so you became a wife and a mother at the same time.
Lisa: I'm wondering, which was the most challenging?
Ginny: Well, I tease Dick and say it was more challenging to be a wife. You know, two headstrong young people coming together and learning how to share and assist each other, that's -- any marriage is -- that's an exciting time. I was naive in those beginning months. I had thought, as a third grade teacher, that being a mom can't be that difficult. I run a classroom of 25 children.
But the responsibility of being a mother is so different than being a teacher -- not just the 24 hour routine, but knowing that your imprint, your responsibility for these boys is total.
And so I moved forward, making some good decisions, and maybe occasionally making bad decisions, but they were wonderful sons, and they didn't show to my eyes any emotional road blocks.
They were properly joy-filled and energetic, and at moments naughty, but they had been so loved by Dick, and by his mother, and by our first mom's parents and family. They had been filled with love, so they were just great boys, and so when we married, they were six, five, and three and a half -- just six, just five, and three and a half.
Peter at that point was definitely delayed. I had not -- even though I had a master's degree in education, really knew very little about that field, and he was just a wonderful boy, smiled all the time, just enjoyed being in the family. Your heart would go out to him. But he had really not received any instruction, any -- there were very few expectations for him in terms of progress.
Just the point had been he had been loved, and very soon after that, Dick and I enrolled him in what was then called the Home for Crippled Children, which was a day program, preschool program for Peter, which made the immense difference in his life, and in my life. He received speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and I received an education.
I would pick him up and learn what he was capable of doing, and when to push him a little, and when to praise him, and I had such -- I have such respect for that program. That incidentally is not called the Home for Crippled Children any longer, it's called the Children's Institute, and very valued resource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Lisa: I believe -- are you and your son John still involved with the Children's Institute?
Ginny: Yes, John is vice president of the board, and I'm an advisor on an advisory committee, yes.
23:07:56:00 - 23:09:09:24
Lisa: Ginny, I wonder -- you said that you hadn't had experience with children with disabilities prior to becoming a mom, becoming Peter's mom.
Ginny: That's true.
Lisa: Did that ever give you hesitation?
Ginny: It didn't. I was so -- I was 23, and Lisa, think back when you're 23.You think you can do anything. I was very much and deeply and excitedly in love with Dick, who was then and now a very intelligent man, but also a compassionate, funny, extraordinary man who loves film and loves baseball and loved his boys so much. So my love for Dick just sort of clouded the idea that this was going to be a very hard job. And it didn't turn out to be that hard a job. Day by day was hard, but the -- as I learned about being a mom, and as my sons began to call me mom instead of calling me Ginny, and where there was just a natural relationship between us and among us, the job got easier.
23:09:15:26 - 23:11:45:22
Lisa: Ginny, I know that you formally adopted your sons in '66? 1965, sorry, but I'm wondering when you first felt like their mom?
Ginny: Well, I think first about the adoption, I wanted to make it absolutely, totally legal before a judge. So that's why we did that, although my heart, there was no question in my heart, I worried in the first weeks how I would grow and love. I knew I liked my sons, I knew I was growing to know more about them and what pleased them and what didn't please them, but love -- you know, when you're 23 you have sort of this fairybook idea about what love is, and Dick said, don't worry about it, it will come. That was just great.
And for example, one of our sons, David, loved scuba diving, and there was a program with Mike Nelson about scuba diving, and I started watching that every afternoon with David.
Now normally, with the big responsibility of a house, a small house and sons, you wouldn't take a half hour out to watch television. The program was named Sea Hunt, and so that's the kind of thing I began to do, finding out what motivated them, what their interests were. And so at dinner, David would say, Mom, tell Dad about what happened to Mike when the shark came.
And so David and I had interests that their father didn't know about, and that's the kind of thing, as I became more entwined in their lives, I think they came to love me more, and I came to love them more.
And there was an absolute moment, and I don't know whether -- certainly within the first year, when one of my sons was throwing up. Just maybe the third time I was changing the sheets and pajamas, and I thought, I love you. And so it just -- it -- love grows and comes. It isn't legislated or programmed, and that was a great moment. I thought, yep, I love you.
More Interview Chapters
- YOU ARE HERE: Family Life
- Parenting a Child with a Disability
- Role as Governor's Wife
- National Advocacy
- Peter Thornburg as an Adult
About Ginny Thornburgh
Born: 1940, Hastings on Hudson, New York
Director of Interfaith Initiatives, American Association on People with Disabilities
ADA, Arc, Faith, Governor, Parents, Pennhurst, Polk Center