Philanthropist remembered for her passion, dedication

Flora Laney Thornton, a renowned philanthropist and music enthusiast who gave her name to the Thornton School of Music, died May 7 of pulmonary disease. She was 96.

High notes · Many said Thornton, who performed in two Broadway musicals in the 1930s, had an infectious love of music and saw her own passion mimicked by USC students who benefited from her donations. - Photo courtesy of Steve Cohn, USC

Thornton was known for her lifelong passion for the arts and played a vibrant role in the Los Angeles cultural community.

“She was a culture-classy, artistic woman that you would expect to find in old Hollywood movies,” said Thornton School of Music Dean Robert Cutietta. “She was one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met.”

Friends described Thornton as passionate, timeless and elegant.

“She was dignified and classic with a great sense of humor,” said former Thornton Dean Larry Livingston.

“She was really one of the classiest ladies,” said Thornton Director of Development Abel Delgado. “She was extremely beautiful and well-dressed at all times.”

In 1999, Thornton donated $25 million to the USC endowment that benefits student scholarships and facility funds. Thornton’s modesty almost hindered the naming of the music school, but after some convincing from the university, Thornton accepted the honor of having her name represent the school, Cutietta said.

Thornton’s generosity and love for the school was unique, Livingston said.

“She was one of those donors from heaven,” he said. “She was very empathetic to the mission of our school.”

As an honorary member of the Board of Trustees and a member of the Keck School’s Board of Overseers, Thornton attended regular meetings at the university. Although Thornton’s health weakened in recent years, Cutietta said, she remained a visible figure in university life.

“What was amazing is that even in her 90s, she was present at everything,”  Delgado said. “She wasn’t just a person who was involved in giving, she came to everything — and I mean everything.”

In addition to regular meetings at the university, supporting the Los Angeles Opera, funding cancer research and contributing to a number of charities, Thornton often attended student performances on campus.

“She loved watching the students,” Cutietta said. “She gave money to help young people.”

“She saw in our students a young version of her when she first moved to New York and tried to make it in her career,” Livingston said of Thornton, who performed in two Broadway musicals in the 1930s in New York City.

In February 2006, Thornton donated another $5 million to the music school for new facilities the school desperately needed, Cutietta said. The music school plans to name its new garden in honor of Thornton.

“She was a lover of the arts. She was really passionate about education. She was really passionate about the students,” Delgado said.

In fall 2009, Thornton donated the lead gift to help commemorate the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the music school.

“I really believe that the reason behind [her involvement] was her love for the school. It was her school and she just loved coming,” Delgado said.

Thornton is survived by her second husband, Eric Small, sons Charles and Laney, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.