I don’t remember the first time I met Doug Thornton.
But I do remember our first extended conversation.
It was on a rainy day in 1990 sitting in a car outside a then-decrepit Tad Gormley Stadium as Thornton, then part of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, explained how, despite the naysayers, the $6 million needed to renovate the stadium for the 1992 Olympic Track & Field Trials, would be raised and the project would be completed on time.
The price tag actually wound up at $8 million, but no matter.
From that time a quarter century ago, it was obvious Doug Thornton was a person who knew how to bring people together to get things done — a trait that’s in as much short supply then as now.
So it was absolutely fitting that Thursday night at the Hyatt when Thornton was being honored by St. Jude’s in one of its regional Legends for Charity events (which raised almost $400,000), he and his wife, Denise, were seated at a table with Saints owners Tom and Gayle Benson, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his wife, Chandler, and former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and her husband, Raymond.
That’s because without the ability of Thornton, then the general manager of the Superdome, to bring Benson, Tagliabue and Blanco to the table in order fast-track the rebuilding of the facility following Hurricane Katrina, the history of New Orleans following the storm, which hit a decade ago, likely would have a decidedly different tack.
The fog of war in the days and weeks after Aug. 29, 2005, had at the least created uncertainly, and, at the worst, triggered radical responses which likely would have never been reversed without voices of reason like Thornton’s.
“The stadium was the central piece of our challenge, and Doug was critical in being the conduit during a difficult time,” said Tagliabue, who was the featured speaker at the event which filled the hotel’s grand ballroom to capacity with a who’s who of local sports and civic leaders. “Obviously the loss of life and the devastation affected so much of the community, but the renovating the Superdome demonstrated how sports can contribute to rebuilding the community psyche.
“If the Saints could not have returned in 2006, we would have had an insurmountable problem. But Doug was there, and we were able to work with him and the others. And in the end, we achieved the impossible.”
Thornton, who had already gained acclaim for his leadership during the dark days immediately following the storm when upwards of 30,000 people had taken shelter in and around the Dome until they could be evacuated — he was the last civilian out of the building — is now senior vice-president of Philadelphia-based SMG, which runs stadiums and arenas around the county. But he and Denise still live in their Lakeview home, where she became a leader in rebuilding the neighborhood.
That means that while Thornton’s time in New Orleans is less than before, he’s still the go-to guy when special leadership is needed, especially when it comes to sports.
“Doug brings credibility with everyone he deals with because of his bedrock honesty,” said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau. “He has the ability to bring together multiple parties and then figure out how to make everybody feel like they’ve won.
“Honestly, I don’t know all of the things we’ve accomplished in the last 10 years would have happened without Doug. He’s not just an extraordinary business person, but an extraordinary civic leader.
Thornton is not an elected official (although he would have made an interesting gubernatorial candidate), a governing board member, a team executive or a league officer.
In essence, he is a private citizen, albeit one whose charge is to maximize the revenue from the facilities SMG manages.
So obviously being the honest broker, as he was with Benson, the state and NFL, was in Thornton’s interests, just as being a key figure in landing the major events that make New Orleans a destination city for sports far above what its population and corporate strength should allow, attracting the then-Hornets when it looked like the NBA wasn’t interested in coming here and leading the negotiations with the Saints and Pelicans which have finally stabilized their presence here.
Thursday wasn’t the first time Thornton has been honored for his work, including being named “New Orleanian of the Year,” in 2002, long before Katrina. It took this one being for charity to make it happen.
Characteristically, Thornton was a more than a little embarrassed by the whole thing while making sure to share credit with, not just with his family and those he directly works with, but with the citizens of the area for their strength and resilience through it all.
“This has got to be one of the greatest comeback stories in American history,” he said. “And I’ve got to have one of the best jobs in the world.”
Despite the accolades, Thornton has never neglected the little things that make him so admired.
Thursday afternoon, in the midst of what had to be hectic day as he prepared for the banquet and handled multiple requests to be part of the Katrina anniversary commemoration, Doug called, making sure I was coming to the banquet and thanking me for our time spent together, starting from that rainy day at Gormley.
Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
And don’t be reluctant to take a bow. You deserve it.