SAN DIEGO — Whether she was running a technology company or a gift shop for the San Diego Children’s hospital, Sally Bullard Thornton was turning a profit. And she was always, always doing it in style.
Her vibrant personality and sharp intellect made Mrs. Thornton stand out in whatever circle she traveled — in business, society and the arts.
“She was a matriarch of this town,” said Scott Pedersen, producer of the annual Thornton Winery jazz concert series and a close family friend.
The accomplished businesswoman and philanthropist died Friday at UC San Diego Medical Center. She had suffered a seizure and lay in a coma for six weeks before her passing. She was 81.
Grammy-Award winning jazz trumpeter Chris Botti said Mrs. Thornton was beloved by the many musicians who came to perform at the family’s winery in Temecula. Botti has played there regularly since 1996.
“In the jazz world, she’s so famous for her graciousness and bringing us all on stage,” Botti said from Chicago, where he was performing Saturday night. “She’s a very charismatic woman. She had a real style of bringing you on that made everyone smile. … She had a real sense of drama.”
A fourth-generation San Diegan, Mrs. Thornton worked tirelessly to support the community she loved. A $5 million donation by her and her husband in 1989 led to the naming of UCSD’s Thornton Hospital.
Over the years she sat on the boards of numerous nonprofits and has been a consummate chairwoman of fundraising galas and luncheons. The Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego County, Women’s International Center, United Cerebral Palsy of San Diego County, and the Sally B. Thornton Foundation, which supports scores of charitable organizations, were just a few of the lucky beneficiaries of her seemingly limitless energy and talent. She was named 2011 National Patriot of the Year by the Freedoms Foundation.
“Sally was active in everything,” her husband, John M. Thornton, said Saturday. “She was a perfectionist. She worked to be the best she could be at whatever she was doing. She had a very quick mind.”
He said she best loved raising funds for nonprofits involving children, music, art and food.
But there was plenty of room in her heart for profit, too.
Mrs. Thornton got a certain thrill from improving the bottom line. She served at various times on the boards of Micom Systems, Mitek Systems, Solectek, and as chair of Medical Materials Corp.
Mrs. Thornton was born to Dr. Orlan and Lucinda Bullard. Dr. Bullard was credited with being the first dentist in the U.S. to use intravenous anesthesia to perform oral surgery. As a child, Mrs. Thornton accompanied her father on hunting and fishing trips and became a champion equestrienne, her husband said.
She entered her first horse show at age 4 and through her teenage years to young adulthood won San Diego County championships showing five-gaited horses. She attended Stephen’s College for women in Missouri.
She met John Thornton, then a Naval officer, at a friend’s wedding reception. He recalled that when he met her, he thought, “What a beauty.” They married in 1955 and had two sons, Mark and Steve. When her husband left the Navy and attended Harvard Business School, she took courses there also. Mark Thornton, a race car driver and musician, passed away in 1993. Steve Thornton is president of the winery, which the family took over from the Culbertson family in 1987.
The Thorntons have homes in Point Loma and La Jolla.
John Thornton, who served as president and chairman of the many high-tech firms where his wife was seated on the boards, said they enjoyed their many business trips together, and his wife would combine them with a chance to indulge in the latest fashion designs.
“Sally was an original,” said Iris Strauss, a Rancho Santa Fe resident who befriended Mrs. Thornton some 25 years ago over a shared love of opera and the arts. “She was a really cultured woman. She had an original flair and drama.
“She created her own style and stayed with it.”
Oscar de la Renta was one of her favorite designers.
“When I think of Sally, I think of a very witty, very intelligent, very bright mind and a very classy lady,” Strauss said.
“I will miss her, and San Diego will miss her.”
Her husband said his wife was known for her “acute sense of humor” and liked to host parties with a twist, such as one dinner party in which the guests had to sit through each course with a seatmate other than their spouse or date.
“She was fun to be with — always something different, something that would catch you off-guard,” he said.
John Parrish of La Jolla said he and his wife, Phyllis Parrish, have been friends with the Thorntons for 40 years. The women have served on innumerable charity boards and run fundraisers together, he said.
“I don’t know of anybody that’s supported more organizations than Sally Thornton,” he said.
Pedersen, the concert producer, said of Thornton, “She was a lady,” and that he was privileged to call her “mom” in private moments. Her response, he said, would be, “I’m not that old.”
“I was in the unique position to see her drive, and to appreciate the family as a whole,” Pedersen said. He said that for those who attended concerts at the winery for years, “she will always be known, and missed, for the most incredible (musical) acts.
“Yes, Sally, we’re all ready to have a good time. That’s what she said at every single concert.”