Joel C. Thornley

joel thornley

November 1, 1931 ~ June 4, 2023

Born in: Brownsfield, Texas
Resided in: Hayward, California

Educational visionary, former superintendent of Hayward Unified School district, and beloved patriarch of the Thornley family, Joel Thornley passed away peacefully at his home in Hayward, California on June 4, 2023. He was 91.

Joel was the son of an Oklahoma family who emigrated in 1936 during the Great Depression, arriving in California in 1938 where he attended first-grade at Fairview Elementary in Hayward, then a one-room schoolhouse. His father, Joseph Thornley, was proud to land a union job as an operating engineer, digging trenches to build highways. Although neither of his parents attended college, four of their six children became teachers. The family commitment to supporting public education continues – both sons have taught at the university level and one is currently an elementary principal.

After graduating from Hayward High School in 1949, Joel graduated from San Jose State University in 1953. Following a stint in the Navy – he was in Vietnam when it was still French Indochina – Thornley returned to Hayward and began teaching.

Joel recalled in a 1990 Oakland Tribune article that he hadn’t given education much thought until Elizabeth Lee, his high school social studies teacher, told him “You will go to college.”  She was so determined, Thornley remembered, “I didn’t think I had a choice.”

Joel began his career as a teacher and a vice principal in Hayward Unified School District. He then served as a junior high school principal in Hayward. Thornley went to the district office in 1975, later becoming the superintendent of the Hayward Unified School District for eight years retiring in 1991.

Joel experienced the district as possibly no one else has – as a student, teacher, vice principal, principal, administrator, and superintendent. His eight-year tenure as superintendent to Hayward is the longest in HUSD history.

Looking back on his career, Joel was proudest of the district’s staff development programs, which offered on-the-job training for all employees from custodians to principals and the teacher training program in which mentor teachers work with first-year teachers for five days a year. In a 1990 Oakland Tribune article, he shunned the credit for the development of the programs saying, “You don’t do anything alone and anyone who says he did is lying.” Several teachers, however, were quick to praise Joel’s efforts, particularly citing a program that assisted new teachers by pairing them with mentor teachers, a mainstay in school districts today but unheard of in the 1980’s.

Under Joel’s leadership, the Hayward Unified School District libraries grew from one librarian for four schools to 18 librarians meeting with every first- through sixth-grade student each week. In addition, he increased the book budgets for elementary and secondary school librarians to support the purchase of books. Said Thornley, “Every child should know the joy of reading for pleasure. Access to books should not be limited by the family’s ability to provide them…Love of reading starts with good teachers and librarians who demonstrate their love for books.”

With all his achievements, his favorite memories, however, are clearly in the classroom where he taught junior high. One of his former students was Superior Court Judge Gary M. Picetti. “He  was the best teacher I ever had.” Picetti said of Joel. “He was very tough and very caring. He demanded so much of us. He made you think you could feel that you were the best in the world and could do anything you wanted to do.”

In a final letter to the Hayward Unified employees on his last day with the district, Joel wrote about the good times citing the growth of a staff development department that served both classified and certificated staff with cutting-edge trainings on a wide variety of topics. He also acknowledged the lean years following the passage of Proposition 13, something that has partially been addressed by the passage of Proposition 98.

Joel was known to speak his mind. The San Francisco Chronicle cited Thornley’s dismay with Governor Deukmejian, members of the Legislature, and Paul Gann all of whom opposed Proposition 98 which enshrined a stable source of funding for education in the state budget. “[Schools have been] subject to whatever is the current whim of the legislature. We are a political football and have never been fully funded.”

Joel’s many leadership roles have included the superintendent’s advisory committee appointed by State Superintendent Bill Honig, advisor to ACSA, chairman of the Hayward Education Fund, Board Member for the Hayward Historical Society, Board Member for the Saint Rose Hospital Foundation, and President of Hayward Rotary Club.

After retiring as superintendent in Hayward Unified School District in 1991, he founded The Thornley Group, which provided consultants, trainers, and speakers to the California School Boards Association, countless California school districts, and service clubs.

Additionally, he spent the next 30 years travelling with his beloved wife Loraine and their many friends, built a home on the Sonoma coastline designed by his son where he spent countless hours reading, and watched his grandchildren grow into the amazing adults they are today. He loved his family and he lived a full life.

Joel is survived by his wife of 65 years, Loraine; his son Douglas (wife Susan); son David (wife Stephanie); and three grandchildren, Analise, Benjamin, and Samuel. A memorial service celebrating Joel will be held in July. You can contact the family by writing to an email address set up in his memory:

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