John Shearer: John Thornton Tells Maryville College Students To "Enjoy The Climb"

Tuesday, May 21, 2013 - by John Shearer
John and Eileen Thornton
John and Eileen Thornton
- photo by John Shearer

Chattanoogan John “Thunder” Thornton has enjoyed much success in the business world, but he did tell Maryville College graduates Sunday night that he has one regret – he did not enjoy the climb toward achievement as much as he should have.

“I was so focused on getting on top of the mountain, I didn’t savor some of my views on the journey,” he said with obvious emotion. “So many of your best memories occur while you are climbing the mountain.”

The noted businessman – whose career has ranged from manufacturing decorative floor mats to creating patterns on the landscape with his current Thunder Enterprises residential developments – was the commencement speaker at the Blount County college’s graduation exercises, where 218 seniors received bachelor’s degrees.

Also during the ceremony, he was presented an honorary doctor of laws degree from school president Dr. William T. Bogart.

Making light of the honorary degree, he joked to his wife, Eileen, in front of the crowd, “Eileen, it will be Dr. Thunder to you from here on.”

In an upbeat and enthusiastic 20-minute talk titled “Lloyd’s Lessons and Pat’s Principles,” he offered some encouraging maxims he had learned from his father, Lloyd Thornton; Dalton, Ga., businessman Shelby Peeples; and former Tennessee Lady Vol basketball coach Pat Summitt.

Regarding his father, he said the elder Mr. Thornton was a Southern gentleman who never missed an opportunity to say thank you. As a result, he encouraged the graduates to thank their parents after the ceremony, as well as to show appreciation to their professors.

His father, a noted athlete, had played football and basketball at East Tennessee State University, and also officiated football games at Maryville College, he said.

“He could run the 100-yard dash in under 10 seconds and that was 80 years ago and without the help of Nike Air shoes,” Mr. Thornton said with a laugh. “Unfortunately for me, the athletic genes skipped right over my body. But I did inherit the gene of loving to compete.”

He then told the graduates not to let people tell them their dreams are impossible to accomplish.

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” he said. “I’ve made a pile of them. Success is often found when you stumble from one mistake to the other.”

He said he learned from Mr. Peeples how someone should always do what they say they are going to do, and he learned from Coach Summitt, who is now battling Alzheimer’s Disease, four traits that are important to success.

They include having a good and upbeat attitude, having a good work ethic and never letting someone else outwork you, treating others how you want to be treated, and taking care of your body, because God gave you only one.

He also said years ago when he started American Rug Craftsmen floor mat company that longtime noted Chattanooga accountant Joe Decosimo sent him a note and told him that he was proud of the new business. However, he also told Mr. Thornton to be sure to stop and enjoy operating the business because life goes by so quickly.

That led to Mr. Thornton’s emotional advice to the students about enjoying the journey and not being so focused on the destination.

Much of his talk was more light-hearted. For example, early on he jokingly said, “In conclusion” but told the graduates they were not going to get off that easy, as he was going to give them a little advice.

He added that while growing up as a member of Broadway United Methodist Church in downtown Maryville, one long-winded preacher used to say, “In conclusion,” and Mr. Thornton knew 20 minutes still remained until the time for the closing benediction came.

The noted businessman – who is also a major supporter of the University of Tennessee and its sports programs -- said he grew up at 110 Hudson Street in Maryville, a home that was “a nine-iron shot” away from an old Kay’s ice cream shop.

He also told the crowd that he was taught in kindergarten by Senator Lamar Alexander’s mother.

Mr. Thornton also introduced four Maryville College graduates – Rocky Casteel, Pat Moyer, Alec Blaine and John McCloud – who were recommended to him as future employees of American Rug Craftsmen beginning in the 1980s by longtime Maryville College basketball coach Randy Lambert. 

“Our success at American Rug Craftsmen could simply not have been achieved without the energy of Pat, Johnny, Alec, Rocky and the crew,” he said, telling the graduates that the four came from the same college background.

Despite the threat of rain, the commencement program was held outdoors in the scenic open lawn in the middle of campus.

Keeping with the Presbyterian college’s highlander heritage, a bagpipe band presented a 15-minute prelude, and the school’s choir sang the familiar Scottish anthem, “Loch Lomond,” after Mr. Thornton’s talk.

The thick clouds, wet grass and cool temperatures as darkness approached also gave the setting a Scottish-like feel.

Click here for an interview with Mr. Thornton.


Maryville College graduation
Maryville College graduation

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