Thornton Tomasetti
Charlie Thornton

Want to Leave a Legacy? Be a Mentor

Jan. 20, 2024
EDITOR'S NOTE: Projects are important, sure. But relationships ultimately measure both our personal and professional lives.

Much has happened since I last penned one of these essays before Thanksgiving.

Most significantly for me, I lost a beloved older brother after a long illness, and then my wife and children and I traveled to Ireland over Christmas. That proved much more moving and meaningful for me than I had anticipated, due largely to my brother's passing.

On our pilgrimage to the Emerald Isle, I also became the first of my siblings to actually kiss the fabled Blarney Stone. You'll have to tell me if that odd practice has made me any more eloquent, as the Irish legend claims.

Another significant passing in December merits greater attention in any engineering journal. So let me sing the praises here of one Charles H. Thornton, PE, founding principal of structural engineering giant Thornton Tomasetti, New York City. He died Dec. 12 at the age of 83.

Like me, Charlie was born in the Bronx, NY. But unlike me, he helped to change the skylines of dozens of cities around the world. At the age of 20, he joined Lev Zetlin Associates in 1960 and later partnered with colleague Richard Tomasetti in 1983 to buy out the ownership and create Thornton Tomasetti. Their firm has been a global player ever since. To date, it has worked on more than 90,000 projects in over 150 countries, serving as structural engineer on six of the world's 15 tallest buildings. 

Even with all the fame, fortune, and accolades that came with that skyscraping work, however, the greatest mark that Charlie likely has left on this industry --and society-- is his founding in 1994 of the ACE Mentor Program. Now in its 30th year, the nonprofit is dedicated to introducing high school students (particularly from communities of color) to potential careers in the architecture, construction and engineering industry. In 1994, the program started with 90 students.

Incredibly, as of 2020, ACE had grown to boast 75 affiliates across the U.S., teaming over 10,000 students per year with more than 4,100 industry mentors, including several from Thornton Tomasetti. In 2011, ACE Mentor was honored by President Barack Obama with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

In a December interview with ENR magazine, ACE Mentor President Diana Eidenshink, who is also Thornton's daughter, said, “We estimate that 2,000 people who participate in ACE enter the construction industry every year. (So) it became something bigger than he ever envisioned, beyond his wildest dreams.”

To date, the program has produced over 100,000 graduates from 36 states, Puerto Rico and Toronto, according to ACE Mentor. Some 1,500 high schools participate annually, contributing students, of whom over 70% are people of color and about 40% women. All told, the program has also cumulatively awarded $32.4 million in scholarships to participants.

Even my son, now a union carpenter, participated in the ACE Mentor program when he was in high school. So did one of my daughter's best friends, who is now working at a civil engineering firm in Chicago. So I can attest to the national impact of Thornton's decision to start the program 30 years ago. That apparently was spurred by one of his old engineering professors at Manhattan College who told Charlie that our industry was failing with the next generation.

To his everlasting credit, Thornton took that advice to heart and quite literally changed our industry forever and for the better. 

In 2001, I had the pleasure of meeting Thornton at ENR magazine's annual awards banquet, which that year was already honoring him as our industry's "Mentoring Maestro."

More than 20 years later, his good deeds have grown exponentially. And they continue to grow each year. So, thank you, Charlie. Our industry is in your debt.


ACE Mentor has established the Charles H. Thornton Memorial Fund. To learn more, click here.