Requiescat in pace Nancy Thornburg
January 11, 2018
Her constant goal was to make our little corner of the world, these rough and tumble lands of Alpine County, a better and more civilized place for everyone to live. Nancy Thornburg passed from this earth on the very last day of 2017. Though a star was added to the heavens that day, it left a deep and painful wound for all of us that loved and respected her.
I've heard it said that everyone is replaceable, but Nancy is definitely not: there is no one quite like her. She was steadfast, constant, and dedicated. No matter what the outcome, she was always ready to stand up and do the right thing. This quote by Edmund Burke was one of her favorites, and she carried it in her wallet for many, many years: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." One can only hope that without her as part of our system of checks and balances, that the entire county will not slip slowly into chaos, loosing the most fundamental components of a well-mannered society.
Even if you were on the opposite side of a political fence from Nancy, it could not in any way change the admiration you felt in watching her work. She was extremely intelligent and adept at research and reference notations. She had a commanding knowledge of the history of Alpine County, having served both the Museum and Archives. She was passionate and intense, giving excellent presentations and writing insightful letters and articles. Another of her favorite quotations was "If we don't get the facts right, we'll get the decisions wrong." She held herself to very high standards.
Nancy and her husband Fritz Thornburg just celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary last year. Quite some time ago, I asked Nancy how she met Fritz and ended up in Markleeville. "I first saw him across the quad when we were both in college," she began, her clear blue eyes looking up, while her thoughts drifted far, far away. She stopped and looked straight at me. "He was incredibly handsome!" she said with a huge grin.
The Thornburg family has a deep and long history in Alpine, with ancestors arriving in 1875, so Fritz and Nancy settled here after the wedding. Their three daughters are all capable, remarkable women today. It takes a strong man to love a strong woman, and a true gentleman to raise such competent daughters. The devotion and love represented in their relationship stood as a beacon for many of us. Nancy wrote: "Our chief desire in life is someone who will encourage us to be all that we can. This is largely what we seek in a spouse." It was a true inspiration to watch how much they cared for and admired each other.
A person of many interests and talents, Nancy had a deep love of the English language. We were constantly exchanging grammar jokes and word puns we would come across. She even bought a shirt with one of our favorites: "Let's eat Grandma" or "Let's eat, Grandma": Commas save lives! Also an outstanding cook, the day she brought a huge plate of her perfect cinnamon rolls to our house stands out in my memories. Her recipe was difficult, but worth it. She was also well known for her cheesecake. All of us looked forward to it at Fire Department Fundraisers.
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Nancy felt the purpose of life was not to be happy, but to matter. To do that you needed to be productive, stretching yourself to the furthest boundaries of your capabilities and using whatever gifts had been bestowed upon you. She mentored my sons when we spent so much time at the Museum as volunteers during her years as Director. She wrote Anthology: Wit and Wisdom and Humor for my oldest on his 18th Birthday. It is an uplifting volume collected from numerous sources between 1950 and 1999, and contains writings that were intended to give him the conceptual, spiritual, and moral foundation he needed to set out into the world. They were all the ideas that motivated Nancy, so we knew their effectiveness had been proven.
Talking with Nancy about any difficult or complicated situation was always illuminating. We would discuss possible courses of action. She would review them concisely, throwing aside any that were not logical or feasible to carry out, then highlighting the best ways to respond. Her ability to sift through and make sense of information on multiple levels was impressive: her brilliant mind and altruism being some of her greatest strengths, along with absolute courage. Invariably, at the end of one of these discussions she would say "All right then, let's go out and do this!" She was not a woman of idle talk, but of decisive action.
Unfortunately, there was often no response to all her efforts. "Well," she would comment, "at least it is documented." The historical record will show the truth of her efforts on the behalf of the citizens of Alpine. Her dedication was beyond admirable. She put into it every ounce of energy she had: never holding back anything. She did this every day of her life. She felt it was never promised us that life would be easy, free from conflict, uncertainty, or pain. But Nancy did feel there was always something we could do to bring some portion of human misery to an end.
The conduct of her life was proof of the sincerity of her heart. Nancy loved creating order out of chaos, and to this end, she designed many organizational systems. For years, she has been secretly creating special binders for her granddaughters filled with important quotations and beliefs, favorite things she has kept they have written or made: all of it acknowledging their own unique personalities and characteristics. Her first priority was always her family. Her love for them was so strong that I know it continues past earthly death, and will abide with them forever: a silent sentinel watching over and protecting them.
Nancy wrote this in 1952:
Love—of all people and all things.
Tolerance—of man, both in his beliefs and in his actions.
Faith—in God, in mankind, and in the good which exists in all men: and in myself.
Happiness—both experienced and shared.
Wisdom—the ultimate goal, gained through knowledge and experience.
Nancy Thornburg achieved all this and more. The triumph is not in suffering avoided, but in the joys lived completely in the moment of their happening. If we also appreciate the reasons for rejoicing in our lives, there is no need to be afraid to weep when there is cause.
Requiescat in pace, dear and loyal friend.