Books and reading shaped Phyllis Thornley's life

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 29, 2012 - 9:02 PM

Books were Thornley's passion, and for much of her life, her livelihood.

Phyllis Thornley

Whenever Gladys Sheehan stopped at her friend Phyllis Thornley's house, she couldn't help but be impressed by all the books.

They were everywhere. On the dining room table. In and out of bookshelves. On top of TVs and by living room chairs.

Books were Thornley's passion, and for much of her life, her livelihood.

Thornley, who died Oct. 20 at the age of 87, worked for nearly three decades as a librarian and administrator, much of it with Minneapolis Public Schools. In 1973, she also served as president of the Minnesota Association of School Librarians.

"She read everything," said a son, Stew Thornley, of Roseville. "She read not only to learn, but for the love of reading."

A lifelong Minneapolis resident, Thornley developed that love while growing up the daughter of a teacher during the Great Depression.

After graduating from Central High School, she enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where she earned undergraduate degrees in political science and elementary education and later, a graduate degree in library science.

Along the way, she worked as a librarian at University High School and later at Folwell Junior High in Minneapolis. She also served a stint teaching library science at the University of Minnesota and later became media services administrator with Minneapolis schools.

After retiring in 1983, Thornley worked as a consultant for library education at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul and as a proposal writer for the state Education Department. She was chairwoman of the Minneapolis Television Network and served as a judge for the Minnesota Book awards.

Stew Thornley said some of his earliest memories are of sitting on the living room couch alongside his older brother, David, as his mother read to them, including comics from the Sunday Tribune.

"We'd be looking at the pictures as she read," said Thornley, who has authored more than a dozen books about local sports and sports history, including "On to Nicollet," a history of the Minneapolis Millers minor league baseball team.

A niece, Sheryl Gallup, of Blaine, said books were frequent birthday and Christmas gifts from her aunt.

"If I got a Peter Pan book, it was the classic Peter Pan, it wasn't the Disney version," Gallup said. "She'd give us all these books that were just timeless."

Sheehan, who got to know Phyllis Thornley when the two were librarians in Minneapolis, said Thornley was "a scholarly woman" with "high ethical standards."

She said that when reading materials used in public schools in the 1960s came under scrutiny for their lack of diversity, Thornley headed a committee of Minneapolis teachers and librarians to select books that better represented all races and both genders.

"She believed strongly in fairness" Sheehan said. "She wasn't a crusader, but she knew what the right thing was to do."

Thornley also enjoyed travel -- she visited Europe, Australia, South America and Antarctica -- and also enjoyed gardening and baseball. Growing up near Nicollet Park, she got hooked early on the Millers, who played only a few blocks away. More recently, she shared Twins season tickets with a daughter-in-law and attended games weeks before her death.

Thornley was preceded in death by her husband, Howard. In addition to Stew and his wife, Brenda Himrich, she is survived by son David and his wife, Dorene, of Minneapolis, and grandson Ray.

A memorial service will be held at noon, Nov. 10, at the Lakewood Cemetery Memorial Chapel in Minneapolis.

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

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