Pittsburgh – Global law firm K&L Gates LLP today joins legal and political communities across the world in mourning the death of Richard (Dick) L. Thornburgh, former governor of Pennsylvania, former United States Attorney General, and a longtime lawyer with K&L Gates before his retirement from the firm in early 2019. Thornburgh passed away this morning at the age of 88.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Dick Thornburgh, a giant in the legal world and in the realm of public service,” stated K&L Gates Global Managing Partner Jim Segerdahl. “He made lawyers proud to be lawyers, and inspired us all to strive to live out the highest ideals of the profession. Dick was the consummate public servant, combining empathy, brilliant intellect, and a remarkable capacity to identify pathways to a better society and to make great ideas actually come to life. He did all this and more with unfailing integrity, grace, class, humor, and a love of family. Dick led an amazing life with truly lasting impact; he will be greatly missed.”
Thornburgh began his private practice legal career as an associate with K&L Gates in 1959, holding multiple key roles in the firm’s Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Boston offices at various times in the following decades.
Thornburgh spent a decade with K&L Gates prior to his successful 25-year career in government, leaving the firm in 1969 to serve as a United States Attorney for Western Pennsylvania, where he quickly earned a reputation as an aggressive prosecutor who effectively challenged organized crime and corruption. He later continued these efforts on the national level when he served as Assistant U.S. Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
He was elected Governor of Pennsylvania in 1978 and again in 1982, during which time he presided over the response to the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, one that is still studied today as a model of crisis management and during which he was described by observers as “one of the few authentic heroes of that episode as a calm voice against panic.”
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan appointed Thornburgh as the United States Attorney General, with Thornburgh retained in the position by President George H. W. Bush. In that role, he led an unprecedented attack on white-collar crime, including a record number of convictions arising from the savings and loan crisis and of defense contractors and corrupt public officials. Thornburgh established strong ties with law enforcement agencies around the world to help combat drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorism, and international white-collar crime, and took vigorous action against racial, religious, and ethnic hate crimes. In addition, he mounted an enhanced effort to enforce the nation’s environmental laws, including overseeing the major litigation that resulted from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.
As Attorney General, Thornburgh played a leading role in the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, an accomplishment that Thornburgh considered one of the proudest moments of his life and that solidified his and wife Ginny’s role as lifetime champions for people with disabilities in honor of their son, Peter.
He subsequently served as Under Secretary General at the United Nations, during which Thornburgh issued a widely praised report outlining approaches for reforming and restructuring the U.N. to foster improved peacekeeping, humanitarian, and development programs. He returned to K&L Gates in 1994, remaining with the firm until his retirement.
David Ehrenwerth, Thornburgh’s longtime friend, a fellow partner in K&L Gates’ Pittsburgh office, and a co-chair of the Thornburgh Forum for Law & Public Policy at the University of Pittsburgh, commented: “Dick possessed a unique combination of wonderful traits: he was a loyal and dedicated family man; a trusted friend and colleague; a brilliant lawyer; a highly effective national political leader; and a great mentor. Each year, he would meet with our firm’s newly graduated lawyers and inspire them with his commitment to the law and his integrity. Dick also was particularly pleased with the role that the Thornburgh Forum plays in energizing and guiding future generations of political leaders and engaged citizens.”
Recognized by Washingtonian magazine as one of “ten legendary Washington lawyers who will forever leave their mark on the District’s legal landscape,” Thornburgh worked on numerous high-profile cases, including serving as an examiner in the WorldCom bankruptcy proceedings, an independent investigation of a CBS News report by anchor Dan Rather, and an independent review of the Freeh Report concerning Joseph Paterno by the Paterno family.
“Dick Thornburgh was indeed a man for all seasons—a true talent and a remarkable professional,” said K&L Gates Chairman Emeritus Chuck Queenan. “His history as a compassionate human being will long survive his time on this spinning ball we call earth.”
In 2006, Thornburgh received a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from The American Lawyer magazine for “important contributions to public life while building an outstanding private practice.” He was similarly recognized in 2013 by The Legal Intelligencer as among those who “represent the best the Pennsylvania legal community has to offer” and was the recipient of honorary degrees from 32 colleges and universities.
Last month, Thornburgh also was honored with the establishment of an award in his name by the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The Dick Thornburgh Award will be presented annually to an Assistant U.S. Attorney in recognition of their sustained and ethical outstanding performance.
He is survived by his wife, four sons, six grandchildren, and five great grandchildren.