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Key El Paso figure behind the Sun Bowl, holiday tree lighting and UTEP athletics retires after 43 years

Wayne Thornton.

EL PASO, Texas - Look around El Paso.

Go for a walk in San Jacinto Plaza to see the lit up tree during the holidays, the fanfare that comes with the yearly Sun Bowl, or maybe catch the UTEP women's basketball team in action as the program rises.

There's a constant behind all of this.

And it's Wayne Thornton, public relations director of Parks and Recreation for the City of El Paso, who is retiring at the end of the month after 43 years serving the community.

"I'm very lucky," said Thornton. "This is the best job anybody could have on the planet."

Thornton works for the city, but his passion has always been youth sports. And you won't find anyone who has worked harder to see kids play.

"I think it's important for people to realize that you need a hook for everything you do in life. And our hook was to get them in the gym, but also to sit down with them and get to know them as a person," he told ABC-7.

His hook started in 1973. When Thornton, then a UTEP student, saw that the school had no women's basketball team and took action.

"Nobody gave us any hassle. The university president though said 'I'll give
you $1,000 if you leave my office.' He gave us a thousand, we were gone," Thornton recalled.

Thornton became UTEP's head coach in 1977, and because of his initiative nearly 40 years ago, the UTEP Women play in Division-1 today.

"I think it's important for people to understand that girls can be on a level of any boy in any life, in anything they do. But they need support. And if I'm there to give them that support, I'm right there," he explained.

From UTEP, Wayne moved onto Parks and Recreation, where his passion for women's athletics brought him to Julia Kallman and the Junior League of El Paso. There, he spearheaded Midnight Basketball, a non-profit league for women in 1994.

"He had such a kind face and he was so patient," recalls Kallman. "Because trying to start a basketball league with the women of the Junior League, you have to be the most patient man that walks the earth.

At the same time, Wayne was organizing summer and spring Leagues for El Paso's youth that ran from 1985-2008.

Wayne's emphasis? Every player on the roster had to play.

"I always felt that doing what I do, I could change the world," said Thornton. "And I thought that any child that comes into the gym, or any child that's sitting on the bench. Everybody needs to play."

But even when school started back up, Thornton stayed with the kids in their team seasons, as a regular spectator in high school gyms.

Longtime El Paso sportswriter Bill Knight recalled from a trip with fellow sportswriter Matt Aguilar that shows Thornton's support extends far beyond city limits.

"Wayne went with us because Wayne always wanted to be around the kids and wanted to let the kids know he was there for them," recalled Knight.

"I covered a game, Matt covered a game in Odessa. Wayne kept the car and went back and forth between the games so he could see all the kids," Knight said.

"It's very invigorating when you can see a child, and you see them grow and they come back to you and they thank you for what you did for me," added Thornton. "I didn't do anything, but it was just the process of being there for them."

Thornton – who served as Sun Bowl President in 2005 – has been integral in the growth of the signature event, according to current president Bernie Olivas.

"He's turned out to be the nicest man I've ever seen in my life," said Olivas.

Even after his retirement, Thornton will stay on with the Sun Bowl helping with media relations.

Thornton's fingerprints are all over El Paso, but you wouldn't know from his "nice as rice, mellow as jello" nature.

"I've had a blessed life. So I could walk out of here and get hit by a car, let's hope it doesn't happen, but I could walk out of here and leave this earth and say to myself that I've had a very lucky life," he concluded.

High School Sports / News / Sports / Texas Sports / Top Stories / UTEP / Video

Nate Ryan

Nate Ryan is an ABC-7 sports anchor/reporter.


1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your service Mr Thornton. Coincidence and appropriate that you’re retirement occured during Black History Month,a month which highlights African leadership and giving back to community

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