Resident Spotlight: John Travis Thornton


John Travis Thornton

During the month of November, one day is designated to honor the men and women who served in our Armed Forces. We are blessed and grateful every day for the freedom we enjoy because of their valiant service. One of the many Veterans living at Kirby Pines is John Travis Thornton. In addition to serving his country during war time, Travis devoted his professional life to teaching and leading in various educational positions.

A true Mississippian, Travis was born, educated and employed in Mississippi his entire life. The only exceptions are his service time and since his move to Kirby Pines in 2020. 

Born in Kosciusko, MS in 1933, Travis was the third child in the family with two older brothers. “We had good times and tough times together,” admits Travis. “I was constantly told, ’you’re not old enough-maybe next year’”. Travis says his early school years were uneventful. Because his father was retired from the Marine Corps, he learned geography from large maps his father posted on their walls outlining battle zones during the Second World War. During his junior and senior high school years, Travis played trombone in the band and had the male lead part in the school play “Smarty Pants”.

Following high school, Travis enrolled in pre-pharmacy courses in college. However, he changed his mind when he realized he was required to pass chemistry! He considered dropping out of college, but, the other option was to become part of the family dairy business. He decided to return to college and graduated in 1954 from Delta State University with a B.S. in Education (major: Math). 

Travis’ plan was to teach mathematics in high school. He knew it would be difficult to find a job because of the Korean War, as he was eligible to be drafted at any time. Rather than wait, Travis volunteered to have his name moved to the top of the draft list. He completed college on Friday and reported for induction into the Army on the following Monday. He was offered an opportunity to attend Officers Training School but elected to remain in basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. His advanced training was in Ordinance Supply Parts Identification. Expecting to be sent to Korea, Travis was fortunately assigned to Innsbruck, Austria. This assignment allowed him to see this beautiful country with the snow-capped mountains, a “far cry” from the landscape of Northern Mississippi! He was later transferred to the Technical Staff Office near Pisa, Italy and actually climbed the famous tower there. “It was leaning before I got there”, laughs Travis. Off duty time allowed him to visit many places in Europe while stationed there. Travis was often questioned about why his hometown’s name was of Polish origin. He says he always replied “With other Mississippi names like Hot Coffee, Possum Neck, and Why-Not, it was not that unusual!”

Following his discharge from the Army in 1956, Travis returned to his beloved Mississippi to start his teaching career. From several offers, he chose Leland, Mississippi. According to Travis, “Leland is the greatest small town I have ever known. The students, parents and school were a great experience.” During summers, Travis attended Mississippi College and graduated with a Masters in Administration (Guidance and Counseling) in 1960. Following graduation, he became a Counselor in a Junior High School in Greenville. It was here that a wise Principal helped Travis to create a firm education philosophy. That being, “We are not just educating future doctors, lawyers and engineers, but rather preparing the students to be good citizens.” His progression in jobs continued from Counseling to becoming Principal at various schools, eventually being offered the position of Dean of Student Affairs at Mississippi Delta Community College, a position he held for nineteen years. Of his time there, Travis says that a more appropriate job description for conducting student affairs for the 17 to 21 age group was “wildlife management”!

A position of Dean became available at a branch campus of Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez. Taking on this job had many challenges. There was low enrollment and classes were held in a vacant elementary school. During his six years there, Travis increased the enrollment by 400% and successfully managed to get a new academic building.

While Travis was teaching in Greenville, he fell in love with another teacher, Jenny Smith. They married in 1963 and nine years later, had their only child, Robert. Following his retirement from teaching at the Natchez campus, the family moved to Houston, Mississippi, Jenny’s hometown. Not to be idle, Travis had a wonderful experience helping with tours to parts of Mississippi, including beautiful Natchez. Travis and Jenny lived in Houston twenty-four years until her death in 2020. 

Following Jenny’s death, son Robert encouraged Travis to move to Memphis to be closer to him. After investigating several places, they chose Kirby Pines. “I moved here in July of 2020 to be free of most duties and responsibilities of keeping up a home,” says Travis. He has continued to be active, enjoying bridge, poker, exercise classes, the Poetry Club and walking his neighbor’s dog. He regularly attends the Sunday morning church services. “The most wonderful thing here at Kirby Pines”, says Travis, “is our library. Because of COVID restrictions when I moved in, it was vital to me in making the transition and to feel like Kirby Pines is now my home.” 

Wrtten by Joan Dodson, Resident, Kirby Pines