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Ray Thornton Papers

Identifier: MC 1964

Scope and Content Note

Materials pertain to both personal and professional aspects of Ray Thornton’s life. Personal materials include correspondence from family and friends; annotated books; and collected mementoes. Other personal materials encompass genealogical notes, including research materials related to A.J. Stephens: As Remembered by His Family (1983) and an unpublished biography of Witt Stephens.

Professional materials pertain to Thornton’s multifaceted career, including his tenure with Arkla (1957-1970); his term as Attorney General of Arkansas (1970-1972); and the first period he served in Congress (1973-1979). Materials detail his role as a member of the special subcommittee which investigated Watergate; such materials include opinion correspondence from both Arkansans constituents and out-of-state correspondents. In addition to correspondence, Watergate materials include published records of the Committee on the Judiciary’s impeachment inquiry and President Nixon’s reelection campaign activities in 1972. Also included are transcripts of Watergate-related presidential tapes and background materials. Professional papers also include materials related to Thornton’s unsuccessful run for U.S. Senator from Arkansas in 1978.

Professional materials also include items related to his tenure as chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (1980-1984), and as chairman of the National Institutes of Health Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (1980-1983). Other professional materials document the period he served as president of Arkansas State University (1980-1984) and president of the University of Arkansas System (1984-1990). Additional professional materials document his second stint as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1991-1997); as an Arkansas Supreme Court Justice (1997-2005); and his activities as the first Public Service Fellow of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s law school (ca. 2005-2009).

The collection includes a series of scrapbooks and newspapers, as well as more than 1,600 photographs, documenting personal and professional aspects of his life. Also included are 58 audio cassettes and more than 100 video cassettes with recordings of Thornton’s speeches and political events. The collection includes paintings and sketches of Thornton, as well as plaques and ephemera.


  • Creation: 1898, 1928-2017
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1945-2011


Language of Materials

Materials are in English.

Access Information

Please call (479) 575-8444 or email at least two weeks in advance of your arrival to ensure availability of the materials.

Use Information

Restrictions Apply: Materials in Box 7 are restricted and not available for research.

No Interlibrary Loan.

Standard Federal Copyright Laws Apply (U.S. Title 17).

Biographical Note

Raymond “Ray” Hoyt Thornton, Jr., was born in Conway (Faulkner County), AR, on July 16, 1928, the son of Raymond Thornton, Sr., and Wilma Elizabeth Stephens. Seeking careers in education, Raymond Sr. and Wilma attended Arkansas State Teachers College (today the University of Central Arkansas) in Conway, and later moved to Wilma’s hometown, Sheridan (Grant County), AR. There, Ray’s father became superintendent of Grant County schools while his mother taught for over 50 years.

Ray Thornton, Jr., attended Faulkner and Grant County schools, graduating from Sheridan High School in 1945. He then attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville (Washington County), AR. There, he received the Navy Holloway Program Scholarship, which in 1947 allowed him to attend Yale University, where he majored in international relations and engineering. After graduating in 1950, he attended the University of Texas Law School. In June 1951, Thornton was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy, and he ultimately rose to the rank of lieutenant. He served with the Pacific Fleet during the Korean War, seeing active duty as an officer aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Philippine Sea. In 1953, he was transferred to the U.S.S. General A.E. Anderson. In May 1954, he left the navy, beginning studies at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville. In January 1956, he married Betty Jo Mann of Sheridan; together they had three daughters. Also in 1956, he graduated with a Juris Doctor (J.D.) and was admitted to the Arkansas Bar Association.

Thornton served as deputy prosecuting attorney for Pulaski and Perry counties from 1956 to 1957. Afterwards, he received employment in the legal department of the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company (Arkla), where he was a protégé of his uncle Witt Stephens, the company’s president and major shareholder. As an employee of Arkla, Thornton handled more than 300 law cases. He served as attorney for Independent Allied Telephone in a series of anti-trust suits which broke the monopoly of Southwestern Bell Telephone on telephone service in Arkansas. His accomplishments also included designing the “Handywagon,” a light-weight utility vehicle named after co-designer, Ed Handy.

From 1964 to 1970, Thornton served as chairman of the Arkansas State Board of Law Examiners. From 1969 to 1970, he was a delegate from Grant and Jefferson counties to the Seventh Constitutional Convention of Arkansas. In 1970, he was elected as Attorney General of Arkansas; his achievements included the establishment of the Arkansas Consumer Protection Division and the Arkansas Criminal Code Revision Commission. In 1972, Thornton was elected to the U.S. Congress, serving as a Democratic representative from Arkansas’s Fourth Congressional District from 1973 to 1979. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, he served on a special six-person committee investigating Watergate. In July 1974, members of the special committee drafted articles of impeachment against President Nixon.

Thornton proposed articles charging the president with obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress; these were subsequently incorporated into the full Judiciary Committee’s articles of impeachment, ultimately leading to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. In addition to his activity on the House Judiciary Committee, Thornton also served as chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Science, Research and Technology. One of his achievements was founding the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Thornton was a member of the House Agriculture Committee. His tenure in the House ended shortly after his unsuccessful bid for the position of U.S. Senator in 1978. Thornton chose to contest for the seat of Senator John McClellan, who died in office in 1977, after more than three decades in the position. Thornton lost in the Democratic primary race to Governor David Pryor, who eventually won the seat.

Leaving Congress, Thornton began a career in the field of education. In 1979, he became executive director of the Ouachita Baptist University-Henderson State University Joint Educational Consortium. In July 1980, he became president of Arkansas State University (ASU). While at the university, he also occupied positions related to his tenure on the House Science and Technology Committee. From 1980 to 1984, he was chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. Also in 1980, he became chairman of the National Institutes of Health Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, a post he occupied until 1983.

In 1984, Thornton left ASU to become president of the University of Arkansas and the five-campus University of Arkansas System. His accomplishments included raising $50 million for various building projects including the renovation of Old Main and the construction of the engineering building on the Fayetteville campus. In addition to his duties as president, he served as a distinguished professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. He also made University of Arkansas campuses more autonomous by removing their management from the president’s office and reassigning the task of management to the chancellor of each campus. He further reformed the system’s administration by moving its offices to Little Rock, a central location that served to balance access for the different campuses.

In 1990, Thornton resigned as president of the University of Arkansas system, making a successful run as representative of Arkansas’s 2nd Congressional District. Serving in Congress from 1991 to 1997, he was a member of the House Committee on Government Operations; the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee; and the House Appropriations Committee. He made great efforts to promote his initiative, “Marshall Plan for America,” which sought to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, make education a national priority, establish new health care strategies, create better jobs, emphasize the importance of agriculture, and support initiatives to protect the environment. Although his initiative was not adopted, he was more successful in challenging term limits legislation; such legislation was rebuked by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995 in U.S. Term Limits, Inc., v. Thornton.

In 1997, Thornton retired from Congress to become a member of the Arkansas State Supreme Court, a post he retired from in 2005. Afterwards, he joined the law school of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock as its first Public Service Fellow. His final post, as a public servant, was chairman of the Arkansas Lottery Commission; he became the first person to occupy that position in 2009.

Throughout his life, Thornton has been a devout member of the Church of Christ, leading him to develop ties to Harding University (Searcy, White County, AR) and to participate in the church’s statewide activities. In honor of his grandfather Albert J. Stephens, he wrote A.J. Stephens: As Remembered by His Family (1983); the work consists of reminiscences of his family including Thornton’s own account as well as interviews with Stephens' family members, including his mother and his uncles, Witt and Jack. He also worked on a biography of his Uncle Witt which was never finished. While in college, he was member of Sigma Chi fraternity, with which he maintained ties later in life. He also received a license as a commercial pilot, and in the early 1980s, he was president of the Arkansas Pilots Association.

Thornton has received several honors and awards. These include honorary doctorates from Harding University in 1981 and the College of the Ozarks (now University of the Ozarks, Clarksville, Johnson County, AR) in 1984. The Arkansas Council of the National Conference of Christians and Jews presented him with its National Humanitarian Award in 1986, while the Easter Seal Society honored him as the Arkansan of the Year in 1987. He currently resides in Little Rock, Arkansas.


215.08 Linear Feet (200 boxes and 12 oversize items)

Arrangement of the Papers

Material is arranged and described in fourteen series:

  1. Personal Materials, 1928-2011
  2. ARKLA and Stephens Inc. Materials, 1878, 1945-2008
  3. State Attorney General Materials, 1970-1972
  4. Congressional Materials, 1972-1979
  5. Watergate Materials, 1972-1974
  6. Science and Technology Materials, 1979-1986
  7. Arkansas State University Materials, 1980-1984
  8. University of Arkansas Materials, 1984-1989
  9. Congressional Materials, 1989-1996
  10. Arkansas Supreme Court Materials, 1995-2011
  11. Newspapers and Scrapbooks, 1934-1990
  12. Photographs, 1930-2005
  13. Audio-visual Materials, 1950-1995
  14. Ephemera and Artifacts, 1960-2009

Acquisition Information

The Ray Thornton papers were donated to Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries on December 30, 2012 by Ray Thornton of Little Rock, Arkansas.

An additional item (Series I, Box 6, Folder 49) was donated by the executor of Thornton's estate, Julia Baldridge, on behalf of the estate on January 1, 2018.

Processing Information

Processed by Vera Ekechukwu and Todd E. Lewis; completed February 2015.

An additional item (Series I, Box 6, Folder 49) was incorporated into the collection by Katrina Windon in January 2018.

Ray Thornton Papers
Vera Ekechukwu and Todd E. Lewis
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid is written in English.

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Department Repository

University of Arkansas Libraries
365 N. McIlroy Avenue
Fayetteville AR 72701 United States
(479) 575-8444