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Wednesday, February 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Retired Boeing executive Dean Thornton dies at 74

Seattle Times staff reporter

Dean Thornton, who retired in 1993 as president of Boeing's Commercial Airplane Group, collapsed and died yesterday while skiing at Sun Valley near his Idaho vacation home. He was 74.

Former Boeing CEO Frank Shrontz, who had known Mr. Thornton since the two attended college together, said last night he was a humble man who never lost his love for his roots.

"He grew up in Idaho with a rural approach. He came through that with high, basic ethics, not a big ego. He conducted himself through his Boeing career in that vein. ... Dean was a rough-hewn guy and proud of it."

Born in Idaho in 1929, Mr. Thornton attended Lewiston High School and the University of Idaho, graduating in 1952 with a degree in business. He then served two years in the U.S. Air Force.

After a few years as an accountant, Mr. Thornton joined Boeing in 1963 as assistant treasurer. In 1966, he was elected treasurer. He served as vice president of finance, contracts and international operations, and then vice president-general manager of the 767 Division when the jet was developed and brought to market.

In 1985, he took over the Commercial Airplane Group, which oversees production of the company's commercial jetliners.

"Particularly during these times, he's a reminder of what made Boeing strong," said Charles Bofferding, executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace. "It was a different world then. ... He should be a reminder to us of Boeing's roots and the best of what we can be."

Dan Hartley, former president of SPEEA and an engineer at Boeing, often sat across the negotiating table from Mr. Thornton. Hartley said, "He had more guts than an Army mule. He was willing to take the smart risks. He did not micromanage. He went ahead with his common sense and his gut feel and made decisions.

"He took people at face value. He was absolutely not a stuffed shirt."

After retiring, Mr. Thornton led fund-raising efforts for the University of Idaho's new Engineering and Physics Building, completed in 1996. Boeing contributed $1.5 million to the $24.4 million renovation and construction effort.

He also founded the Dean D. Thornton Faculty Fellowship Endowment in 1996, providing cash awards for standout teachers at the university's College of Business and Economics.

Mr. Thornton, who lived in Seattle with his wife, Mary, was a member of the board of trustees of the Seattle Art Museum and chairman of the Executive Committee for the Seattle Alliance for Education. He also was a former member of the board of trustees of the Pacific Science Center.

Michael Ko: 206-515-5653 or mko@seattletimes.com

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