Robin Christopher Giles Thornton, 1929-2018
Originally appeared in The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore, May 12, 2018
Robin Christopher Giles Thornton, scientist, conversationalist, and beloved father, grandfather and great-grandfather, died of lung cancer in Eugene on March 8, 2018. He was 88.
He will be remembered for his friendliness, curiosity, and his high intelligence, a combination that made for engaging conversations with family, friends, neighbors, and strangers alike. Robin’s sharp mind didn’t slow as he aged, and he was as thoughtful and articulate as ever until the very end of his life. He loved having a long discussion over a meal—preferably a good steak with a glass of pinot noir—and then he would often research topics further, later presenting his friend or family member with more information or a gift relating to the discussion. At 6’3” he was a gentle giant.
Robin was a night owl who would listen to math and physics lectures online deep into the night. Going through his house after he died, family members are finding scratch papers with math equations and folders upon folders filled with his many research topics. Robin also enjoyed computers and computer programming, time with family, art (especially his late wife Georgia’s paintings), travel, investing, and the Eugene Symphony, for which he was a season ticket holder.
Born December 10, 1929 in British Columbia to parents who came from England, Robin had a fairly traditional British upbringing – one grandfather was a professional tea taster, and the family always listened to the Queen’s speech on Christmas. While he remembered himself as being somewhat shy as a young person, Robin’s strong curiosity about people helped him emerge as an exceptionally friendly person as he matured. Robin fondly remembered working in logging and mining camps in Canada when he was young.
Robin earned his bachelor’s degree in math and physics from the University of British Columbia in 1950, where he took first in his final exams. Robin spent his career as an exploration geophysicist with Chevron, primarily at the company’s research lab in Fullerton, California. Occasionally his work took him to Saudi Arabia. Later in his career he specialized in computing, and he led Chevron’s role as an early customer for Cray supercomputers.
When Robin married Georgia Betts Baker in 1972, he welcomed her teenaged children, Jody and Frank, and treated them the same as biological children. Robin was also a step-father to Mary Ann, from his previous marriage of ten years to Georgia A. Guback, which ended in divorce. Robin used to joke that he married Georgia A and then Georgia B.
Robin introduced his step-daughter Jody Cline to computers in the early 80’s and together they had many conversations discussing technical topics, especially while she was employed by IBM. “He was a researcher at heart,” Jody said. “Even before the days of the Internet.”
In his 40s, Robin developed an interest in the Unitarian Universalist church. In retirement, Robin spent many years as church treasurer at the Unitarian Church in Fullerton, California. He was a regular donor to many charities.
In 2003, he and Georgia moved to Eugene so that Jody and her family could assist with Georgia’s illnesses later in life.
If Robin found himself in a disagreement with someone, it would bother him, and he would want to resolve it. “He would leave no stone unturned, whether it was regarding a problem he was researching or whether it was about finding common ground and understanding with those around him,” said his grand-daughter Brianna Mintz, who had regular lunches with Robin in Eugene.
“One special thing about Grandad is that he seemed to find beauty in all different types of art,” said Brianna. “He could be seen tearing up listening to a contemporary folk song, or he could be seen getting a kick out of Yanni. He really transcended all mediums and found beauty many different formats—spoken word, poetry, art, movies, music.”
Robin wasn’t extravagant but he enjoyed supporting and treating his family when he could. He took family members to Maui as a celebration in 1996, including a wonderful day outing to Lanai.
In Unitarian fashion, Robin expressed in his final days that he wasn’t sure what if anything might happen after death, but he hoped it would be a positive experience. “While death is always challenging for anyone to face, Robin was as much at peace with it as anyone I’ve personally known,” said his step-son Frank O’Donnell. “He felt that he had had a good life.”
Robin was preceded in death by his wife, Georgia Betts Baker Thornton, in 2010, and granddaughter Kerry Shea Chellsen in 2003, his parents, Reginald “Chris” Christopher Thornton and Enid Thornton, and cousins Geoff Richmond and Mary LeLong. He is survived by his children, Jody (Barry) Cline, Frank (Liz Reday) O’Donnell, and Mary Ann Willis; grandchildren, Chris Chellsen, Jess (Mike Tolman) Cline, Brianna (David) Mintz, Amanda (Martin) Arellano, Alex O’Donnell, and Nick Harbar; and great-grandchildren, Dylan Chellsen, Cruz Arellano, Dezi Arellano, Edith Mintz, and Luna Arellano. He has cousins in Canada and England, Sue, Simon, Kim, Noel and Gillian.
A memorial for Robin will be held July 14 at 4 p.m. at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Eugene with a reception following. A second memorial will be held in Canada.
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