11/09/07 — Thornton, Kenan named to Duplin Hall of Fame list

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Thornton, Kenan named to Duplin Hall of Fame list

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 9, 2007 1:54 PM

WARSAW - The two inductees into the Duplin County Hall of Fame Thursday night came from opposite ends of not only the county and the state's historical spectrum, but also the nation's.

The first, a Revolutionary War hero, was a true North Carolina founding father.

The second, a former astronaut, is currently on the cutting edge of science and medicine with the Galveston Medical Branch of the University of Texas.

The first inductee, Gen. James Kenan, the son of Irish immigrants, lived just west of Warsaw and began his career of service when he was elected Duplin County Sheriff at age 22.

In 1765, Kenan led a company of volunteers to Wilmington to oppose enforcement of the Stamp Act -- one of the first actions in the run-up to the Revolutionary War, preceding the Boston Tea Party by eight years.

"It is an interesting piece of history that this event, one of the earliest resistance efforts to British rule in America, never made it into the history books," presenter Leon Sikes said.

Kenan also served in the Colonial Assembly, the Provisional Congress, and later, the state Senate and the state Constitutional Convention and as a councilor of state.

Additionally, he also was appointed brigadier general for the Wilmington district after leading the Duplin Militia during the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge, the Battle of Rockfish Creek and along the Pee Dee River in South Carolina.

But Kenan's involvement in the community also extended to education, as he served as one of the original trustees who established the University of North Carolina, as well as one of original trustees of Grove Academy in Kenansville -- the first formal educational institute in the county and state.

"Today, the legacies that this young and dedicated patriot left are well documented in the history of Duplin County and the state," Sikes said. "The Kenan family name can be found conspicuously across the state and nation.

"The hour has come to officially and honorably recognize the contributions and accomplishments of Gen. Kenan by inducting him into the Duplin County Hall of Fame."

It also was the hour to induct this year's living recipient, Dr. William Edgar Thornton Jr.

"This recipient credits all his achievements to his wonderful parents, his fine Duplin County education and a nurturing hometown (Faison)," said presenter and hall of fame board member Anne Stroud.

Thornton, who graduated from UNC with a degree in physics, also left with a commission from the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War, both times developing systems -- first, a successful target and scoring system for air-to-air missiles, and second, a device for measuring mass in space -- that earned him patents and acclaim.

In between, while studying medicine at Chapel Hill, he also designed systems now widely used in hospitals across the country, including electronically monitored operating suites and the first automatic analyzer of electrocardiograms.

After leaving the Air Force in 1967, Thornton then went on to become the state's first astronaut.

It was there that he worked on several components of space medicine still used today.

Then, since 1995, he has found himself working as a professor of cardiology at the Galveston Medical Branch, where he created a computer-based self-teaching system that provides hands-on training for seeing, hearing and feeling patient signs involving the heart.

"(His) research innovations and contributions have improved and enriched the practice and the teaching of the art of medicine, the strength of our military force and the advancement of space exploration," Ms. Stroud said.

For those efforts, Thornton has received the Legion of Merit Award, the NASA Exceptional Service Award, the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award, two NASA Space Flight Medals, the Distinguished Alumnus Award from UNC and the Kern Award from the Association of Military Surgeons.

"His life has made a lasting impact on the lives of others throughout the world," Ms. Stroud continued. "No one has ever brought more honor to this county, and so tonight, it is our highest privilege to induct Dr. William Edgar Thornton Jr. into the Duplin County Hall of Fame."

For Thornton, standing on a stage inside the Country Squire with Ms. Stroud placing his medal around his neck, it was a special moment.

"I have had a few accolades in my life. I have been on stage with presidents and rulers. But of all of these, in my mind and in my heart, the ones that stand head and shoulders above the others are the very few I have received in my home. I thank you for allowing me to add one more to that list," he said.

Thursday night's class was the 12th for the Hall of Fame. Kenan and Thornton were selected from among 11 nominees.