Called to Serve

A Conversation with Ellen and Rod '63 Thornton

A teacher and principal. A veteran and former intelligence operative. Together, Ellen and Rod ’63 Thornton have spent decades working to improve the quality of life for individuals and communities. Even though they are technically retired today, they still give back to their community and Texas A&M University. 

Ellen received a bachelor’s in elementary education and a master’s in curriculum and instruction. She worked as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, assistant and then associate principal. Later, she took a position with the Student Learning Center at Texas A&M working with incoming freshmen. 

Rod received a bachelor’s in business administration from Texas A&M and was commissioned into the Air Force where he served for 20 years. He then worked in clandestine services with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) where he gathered information, briefed President George H.W. Bush and trained new intelligence officers. His work with President Bush led to his position as Deputy Director of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation in College Station. 

Q: YOU BOTH CHOSE PUBLIC SERVICE FOR YOUR CAREERS. WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO FOCUS ON GIVING BACK TO OTHERS? 

Ellen: I always wanted to be a teacher. I feel that every child can learn... every child can succeed and have wonderful opportunities. I liked providing those opportunities for children and students to learn. 

Rod: I didn’t really go into government service with a feeling of trying to give something back. But once I was in public service, I enjoyed the feeling that I was able to contribute to the safety of our nation. 

Q: WHAT WAS MOST REWARDING ABOUT YOUR CAREER CHOICE?

Ellen: The rewards of teaching come daily. They come sometimes unexpectedly. Watching students succeed and watching students grow is a wonderful feeling. It's a wonderful experience knowing that you have had a part in that growth.

Rod: During my time with the CIA, my job was try to recruit people to provide information for the planners in the United States government to help keep the world safe. That’s kind of a trite expression, but we took it very seriously.

Q: HOW WOULD YOU ENCOURAGE OTHERS TO FOCUS ON A CAREER IN PUBLIC SERVICE?

Ellen: I guess the cliché that you hear so often, and we hear it a lot here at Texas A&M, is get into something that’s bigger than yourself. When you’re in classrooms and schools, you’re creating the future. I would encourage young people to become teachers. It’s hard work but it’s most rewarding.

Rod: One of the things that former President Bush 41 said was public service is a noble calling. I feel the same way.

Q: YOU ARE BOTH STILL GIVING BACK IN YOUR RETIREMENT THROUGH YOUR VOLUNTEER ACTIVITIES. HOW AND WHY HAVE YOU CHOSEN TO SUPPORT THE COLLEGE OF EDUCATION AND HUMAN DEVELOPMENT?

Ellen: I love giving to the community. I’ve served on the Board of Directors for MSC OPAS, the Friends Association of the Symphony Orchestra and currently serve on Board of Trustees of the Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History. I’ve been on the Dean’s Development Council for about six years. As a retired educator, I was curious to learn about new research and things that are going on in the college.

Rod: I strongly believe in the leadership that we have within the college. Because of that, I want to support it in any way I can. I think Ellen and I both would agree that what we've tried to do is to contribute, not just our time and talents to the Development Council, but also our financial resources to help students. We want students to be able to get the type of education that will help them for the rest of their lives.

Ellen: We have sponsored two Foundation Excellence Award (FEA) scholarships for students enrolled in the college because I know that Texas is growing and needs more teachers. I wanted to allow a student to become a teacher who might not have had the resources to do so. We wanted to see someone right now going through, getting their teaching degree, and going out and working. We have really enjoyed our FEA students. 

Rod: We have also funded a ring scholarship and seen how that has worked for young people who couldn’t afford one. We recently committed funds to the Coaching Academy. We were impressed with this unique opportunity for student athletes to get their teaching certification and begin coaching in the schools. We hope that others will also contribute and create an endowment that will let the Academy be funded continually. 

Q: FIFTY YEARS FROM NOW, WHAT DO YOU HOPE PEOPLE WILL REMEMBER ABOUT YOU?

Ellen: I would hope people would remember that I worked hard and cared. When you walk around the A&M campus, you look at the names of people and you look at the buildings. You see how generous and influential people have been here, and I just hope I am remembered in the same way.

Rod: Ellen and I are very concerned about students being able to get the most that they can out of the time they are at Texas A&M. I hope that 50 years from now, if somebody remembers who I am, that they would say I was a person that cared about students and that I gave back to the community more than I got out of it.