Thornton encourages LaGrange College graduates to embrace change

Published 9:00 am Tuesday, May 9, 2023

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On Saturday, former LaGrange mayor, councilman and LaGrange College alumnus Jim Thornton provided the graduation address for the college’s 192nd commencement. More than 200 students earned degrees, but the school also awarded three honorary doctorates.

Thornton was given an honorary doctorate from his alma mater for his service to the City of LaGrange and now cities throughout Georgia. Thornton graduated from LaGrange College in 1994 and later earned his juris doctorate at Emory in 1997.

After practicing law in LaGrange for years, Thornton was elected to the city council in 2010 and was elected mayor in 2014. After nine years as mayor, Thornton moved on from local politics to oversee the Georgia Municipal Association’s legislative advocacy team where he represents the interests of GMA’s 537 member cities. Thornton was presented with an honorary doctor of law degree from the college.

The former mayor’s address encouraged the graduating Panthers to embrace change and new possibilities in ever-changing and often challenging times.

“Your college education has equipped you to respond to a rapidly changing world. You will carry with you those values of integrity and moral courage, but you will be required to adapt to changing times and you will both overcome obstacles and create new possibilities,” Thornton said.

“My simple suggestion today is that you practice change. Much as you practice a sport or a musical instrument. The only way to improve is to practice. Practice your own ability to adapt to change, rather than offering resistance,” he said.

Thornton said he has had to change quite a bit since he rented his first office and put out his shingle offering his services as a lawyer in LaGrange.

“I distinctly remember the anxiety associated with starting something new. For those of you who are traditional-age college graduates, you probably don’t have much experience with fax machines. In 2001, when I opened my firm, I think it was the first thing I bought. They were pretty important,” Thornton said.

That’s how communication was done then. Faxes coming in and out meant money coming in to pay for rent and food.

“But a funny thing happened over the years. People stopped sending faxes. The work kept coming, but the circumstances of how we communicate changed.  My law practice had to adapt. Today it’s all about encrypted email with PDF attachments,” Thornton said. “In business and our jobs, we constantly adjust to changing circumstances.”

Thornton said as mayor he would constantly hear that they wished some type of business was still around or they aren’t happy with the way businesses are operating today.

“I’ve got news for you, change is inevitable and quite honestly change is a good thing. At one point in time, every town in America — just like LaGrange —  had stagecoach repair shops, repairing horse-drawn carriages. Let’s be honest, that’s a failed business model,” Thornton quipped. “When I sat in your seat in 1994, there were 21,000 one-hour photo labs in this country, developing 35-millimeter film before the advent of digital photography.”

From horse-drawn carriages to cars, from film to digital cameras, from phone booths to mobile phones, things change with technology, he said.

“Today there’s a gas station on almost every corner. But one thing that President [Joe] Biden, Governor Brian Kemp, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos all seem to think is that electric vehicles are the future of transportation. That means the charging stations are about to start showing up in every city in America and gas stations are about to become less important. Unless of course, those gas stations adapt to the changing world and start deploying their own electric chargers.”

“In 30 years, when one of you is delivering this commencement address, you may have to explain to the audience what gas stations were,” Thornton joked.

“As society evolves, and new technologies emerge, the needs and wants of future generations haven’t even been totally imagined yet, but you are prepared,” Thornton told the students.

Two others were also given honorary degrees, neither went to the school but their familial connection to LaGrange College is as strong as any alumnus.

Louis and Mary Kay Smith, longtime donors to LaGrange College, were also presented with honorary doctorates of humane letters by the college. The Smiths are retired professionals who established scholarships to LaGrange College due to their family ties to the school.

Louis’ great-grandfather, Rufus Wright Smith, served as LaGrange College president from 1885-1915. The college’s oldest building, Smith Hall, is named after Rufus’ wife, Oreon. Louis’ grandfather, Mann Smith served as a professor and Dean of Students for the school. Rufus’ father, Guy Smith, was born in Smith Hall.

Louis and Mary Kay funded a $1 million endowed scholarship in 2018 to first-generation college students.

In 2020, they committed to giving $5 million to create a Global Engagement endowment to fund the Smith Travel Grant to assist students with study-away expenses.