Jerry Sue Thornton, PhD
2020 BARBARA S. ROBINSON PRIZE
When Jerry Sue Thornton, PhD visited Cleveland for the first time, she made up her mind fairly quickly about whether or not to stay. She came to interview for the position of President of Cuyahoga Community College, which she performed with excellence for the next 21 years. But she stayed for the art- and culture-rich city she discovered that day by driving around and catching quick glimpses of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance Hall, Playhouse Square and other landmark arts institutions.
At the time, she was living in the Twin Cities and had previously worked in Chicago, where she had become accustomed to patronizing numerous world-class arts venues. “I wasn’t going to leave the Twin Cities unless I was going to a place where I could continue enjoying and supporting the arts,” she recalls. “So, seeing the opportunities Cleveland offered to enjoy the arts was the last of the selling points for taking the Tri-C job.”
Growing up in a small coal mining and farming town in Kentucky, Jerry Sue’s only exposure to the arts was through the books at her school. That is until she enrolled at Murray State in Murray, Kentucky, where she finally had opportunities to see and appreciate a variety of performing and visual arts.
“Much like reading, the arts take you to a different places and expose you to different messages,” she says. “You have an opportunity to step outside of the moment and experience different expressions of the world.”
Shortly after graduating from Murray State with her BA in English and Speech in 1969 and her MA in Communications in 1970, Jerry Sue taught high school in Kentucky, until she accepted a job as an instructor at Triton College in River Grove, near Chicago, in 1971. She was the Dean of Arts and Sciences when she left in 1985 to become President of Lakewood Community College (now Century College) in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Along the way she earned her doctorate in Educational Administration from The University of Texas, Austin, in 1983.
“We had a significant opportunity at Tri-C to provide exposure to the arts for our students,” she says. “Many of them may not have had the income level to participate, and many of them were working adults, so it was important to provide a holistic education.”
Dr. Thornton did so by increasing and enhancing arts-related extracurricular choices. She also made sure that artwork was visible throughout all four campuses so that students would see them everywhere, whether they were studying together, in a lounge or walking through the hallways to their next class.
Dr. Thornton has also given generously of her time serving on a variety of Boards, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, Playhouse Square and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum as well as financially supporting them.
“Among her extraordinary contributions to Cleveland, many have been to the arts, and as a result Tri-C is noted for its arts programming for youth,” says Alex Johnson, PhD, president of Tri-C. “Our academies that focus on dance, classical music and jazz, all had their beginnings with her, so her stamp on the arts has been profound.”
One of her proudest accomplishments is the time in 2007 when she partnered with Terry Stewart, then CEO of the Rock Hall, to keep the museum’s extensive archives in Cleveland. Stewart inquired whether she had any space for the library. The new building that became The Gill and Tommy LiPuma Center for the Creative Arts on Tri-C’s Metropolitan Campus was being designed; she worked closely with the Rock Hall to ensure that the plan included space to accommodate the archives. “Otherwise, it would have gone to New York, and to have the archives separate from the Museum didn’t make sense to me,” she says.
Today, she laughs when she remembers being pleased to learn in her first year that Tri-C had “a little JazzFest,” and then saw that the opening act was Ella Fitzgerald. She went on to help expand the festival through partnerships with Severance Hall and Playhouse Square to use their venues.
She retired as president in 2013, but continues to consult via her company, DreamCatcher Education Consulting, in the areas of higher education leadership, talent development, coaching and job performance. She has won numerous awards, including the Cleveland Heritage Award and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Community Service Award for Outstanding Achievement” presented by the Cleveland Orchestra, the City of Cleveland and Greater Cleveland Partnership.
“All of the arts here have enriched my life since 1992,” Dr. Thornton concludes. “I have been blessed and fortunate to partner and collaborate with some of the finest people in the world, and that just takes you to a different place in your career and life.”