San Diego mourns passing of philanthropist Sally B. Thornton

Accomplished businesswoman and philanthropist Sally Bullard Thornton died Friday, June 12 at UC San Diego Medical Center. She had suffered a seizure and lay in a coma for six weeks before her passing. She was 81.

A fourth-generation San Diegan, Mrs. Thornton worked tirelessly to support the community she loved. A $5 million donation by her and her husband in 1989 led to the naming of UCSD’s Thornton Hospital.

Through the years she sat on the boards of many nonprofits and was a consummate chairwoman of fundraising galas and luncheons. The Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego County, Women’s International Center, United Cerebral Palsy of San Diego County and the Sally B. Thornton Foundation, which supports scores of charitable organizations, were just a few of the beneficiaries of her energy and talent. In 2001, she was named National Patriot of the Year by the Freedoms Foundation.

“Sally was active in everything,” her husband, John M. Thornton, said Saturday. “She was a perfectionist. She worked to be the best she could be at whatever she was doing. She had a very quick mind.”

He said she best loved raising funds for nonprofits involving children, music, art and food. In such roles, she was photographed countless times and pictured in the La Jolla Light.

Social-life photographer Margo Schwab took a moment to comment on her friend, “Smart with razzle dazzle, spunky, feisty, elegant, involved. Just a few descriptions that come readily to mind when I think of Sally. She had a big heart for San Diego causes and an ability to welcome the edgy. Unknown to most, I will never forget the time she called and wanted me to go with her to a naked art (aka live tattoo art exhibition) in Oceanside … she thought it was the coolest thing ever! ... Everyone should have a little of that joie de vivre, or what I would term ‘Sally-essence’ in their lives.”

Social-life photographer Vincent Andrunas said, “While always very much her own person, Sally Thornton attracted a great number of friends and admirers. She will be profoundly missed by those who knew her well, and also by many who never got the chance to meet her but whose lives were made better by her benevolence. The world will go on, but many people are asking, ‘What will we do without Sally?’”

She served at various times on the boards of Micom Systems, Mitek Systems, Solectek, and as chair of Medical Materials Corp. The Thorntons have homes in Point Loma and La Jolla.

John Thornton, who served as president and chairman of the many high-tech firms where his wife was seated on the boards, said they enjoyed their business trips together, and his wife would often combine them with a chance to indulge in the latest fashion designs.

Mrs. Thornton was born to Dr. Orlan and Lucinda Bullard. Dr. Bullard was credited with being the first dentist in the United States to use intravenous anesthesia to perform oral surgery. As a child, Mrs. Thornton accompanied her father on hunting and fishing trips and became a champion equestrienne, her husband said.

She entered her first horse show at age 4 and through her teenage years to young adulthood won San Diego County championships showing five-gaited horses. She attended Stephens College for women in Missouri.

She met John Thornton, then a Naval officer, at a friend’s wedding reception. He recalled that when he met her, he thought, “What a beauty!” They married in 1955 and had two sons, Mark and Steve. When her husband left the Navy and attended Harvard Business School, she took courses there also. Mark Thornton, a racecar driver and musician, passed away in 1993. Steve Thornton is president of the Thornton Winery in Temecula, which the family took over from the Culbertson family in 1987.