by Sue Ann Rybak
Former Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh reflected on the central importance of prayer in his life in a talk at the Center on the Hill.
Speaking on “The Role of Faith in Public Life” at the center’s second Speaker Series presentation on Oct. 10, Thornburgh said his faith in God has played a crucial role in both his private and public life, noting that his favorite scripture passage was from the Book of Mica, Chapter 6, verse 8 “wherein we are admonished to ‘do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.’”
“This single sentence by the prophet Mica sums up centuries of brilliant prophesy,” Thornburgh said. “The call to do justice – one might think for a lawyer would be instinctive, nearly second nature by our training and experience – but this duty extends beyond the courtroom and corporate boardroom where we practice our trade.”
Thornburgh, who served two terms as Pennsylvania governor, as Attorney General of the United States under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and as Under-Secretary General of the United Nations, said faith begins in the family and applies to everyday life and that throughout his 25-year career he has worked hard “to be fair and respectful of the rights and interests of all.”
“I tried to make a good faith effort to combine the toughness necessary to govern and maintain the public order with a compassion that took into account the distress of people in need and these included citizens in need of education, health care, employment and safe and supportive work places,” he said.
Thornburgh noted that in 1960, his family suffered a terrible tragedy. His first wife was killed in an automobile accident while driving his three sons home. Thornburgh’s 4-month old son Peter was seriously injured, with. multiple skull fractures and extensive brain damage that resulted in him being permanently intellectually and physically disabled.
Thornburgh was devastated.
“I was for three years, thereafter, a single parent – a struggling single parent,” Thornburgh said. “And then God send me Jennie Judson, a 23-year-old school teacher from Boston, Massachusetts.”
Thornburgh said she not only became a mother to his three sons but a fierce advocate “first for Peter and then all Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities – a call she continues today.”
Thornburgh said that as director of the Interfaith Initiative for the American Association of People with Disabilities, his wife works with congregations of all faiths to “become more welcoming of people with disabilities.”
Both Thornburgh and his wife work to preserve and protect the rights of the disabled. In 1990, he said, he had the opportunity to oversee the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which he called “the most important Civil Rights legislation ever designed to give people with disabilities access to the mainstream of American life,” adding that “to me, this represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to combine my personal and political agendas.”
Thornburgh vividly recalled how on “a hot and sunny July 26, 1990,” some 3,000 people gathered on the “south lawn of the White House to see [the first] President Bush sign the bill into law – with a call that the “shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
Thornburgh said the second instruction of the prophet Mica was “to love kindness and mercy.”
“This admonition I have learned encompasses the highest claim upon those in public life that of assisting other first and foremost,” Thornburgh said. “This requires listening to others and identifying their needs – listening with the heart as well as the head.”
Thornburgh said the ADA has made an enormous difference in the lives of people, who were previously excluded from employment opportunities, public facilities, transportation and communication services.
He said today, at the age of 53, Peter lives semi-independently in a supervised apartment in Harrisburg and works as a volunteer in the local food bank.
“Although by our standards, he has a great many limitations,” Thornburgh said. “He has bought great joy to the lives of his family, his friends and his colleagues and the congregation he works with.”
Thornburgh said the last and final instruction by the prophet Mica – “to walk humbly with your God” – is “in many ways the most difficult challenge of all to fulfill.”
“Those of us in public life are not a particularly humble species of mankind,” he said. “Humility means first and foremost that in facing the central decisions about careers, about goals, about ambitions we must turn ourselves over to our God. We can never act as if we alone have the wisdom or insight to provide the right answers to all life’s questions.”
Thornburgh said it required acknowledging our mistakes, not only to the public but to our families, friends and colleagues.
“These are hard tasks for those of us in public life, whether elected or appointed,” he added. “We are regularly tempted to try and create an aura of perfection and infallibility about ourselves to ensure that we are maintained in office.”
He said it doesn’t work that way.
Sharing a few humbling experiences in his life, he recalled how, as a 28-year-old lawyer, his “world was turned upside down” at the loss of his wife and the “heavy responsibility of caring for three young boys” including one seriously disabled.
“I was truly humbled by the realization at precisely how fragile our lives, our hopes and our expectations can be,” Thornburgh said. “In the face of life’s uncertainties, we are all just a moment away from our next life-altering challenge.”
Thornburgh said one of the most humbling experiences in his life occurred just 72 days in the governor’s office – the Three Mile Island accident, the most serious accident in commercial nuclear power plant operating history in the United States.
“In March 1979, we had to face a threatening meltdown at TMI, and what followed was 10 days of confusion, uncertainty and anxiety, as we hoped and faced the challenge of surviving,” he said.
Thornburgh said he has “never hesitated to turn to God in prayer.”
“The Three Mile Island accident was a humbling experience for this new governor in the extreme,” Thornburgh said, adding that God often provides in ways that escape our immediate notice.
He shared a recent experience with his son Peter, who, he said, puts many aspects of his faith “into sharp focus.”
“In many ways, Peter has contributed the most to my comprehension to the good that can come from nearly every situation,” Thornburgh said.
He recalled how on a recent visit to the Washington Zoo with Peter, he asked him, “What did you like best about our experience?” Thornburgh said he thought Peter would say something about the animals he had seen…
“Instead, he responded quite simply, ‘being with you,’” Thornburgh said.
“Being with you,” Thornburgh repeated. “Walk humbly with my God, indeed.”
Thornburgh said Peter’s impact on his family’s life has been profound. He compared it to Jesus’ impact on his friends.
“His values are very much in order,” Thornburgh said. “He possesses a kind of quiet dignity that despite his limitations is an inspiration to all who know him.”
The third lecture in the Center on the Hill’s Speaker Series will be held at noon Thursday, Nov. 14, at the Center on the Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave. The public is invited to bring a bag lunch and hear Phillies broadcaster Chris Wheeler speak on the Phillies 2013 season. Wheeler, who has broadcast Phillies’ games for the past 37 years, is an accomplished storyteller.
For more information call 215-247-4654.