- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 13, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Ray Thornton, a former Arkansas congressman who helped draft articles of impeachment against then-President Richard Nixon, led two state universities and served on the Arkansas Supreme Court, has died. He was 87.

Thornton’s former chief of staff Julie Baldridge said Thornton died early Wednesday after a short stay in hospice.

Republican U.S. Senator Tom Cotton said Thornton set an example with his service to the state.

“I join all Arkansans in mourning the death and celebrating the life of Congressman Ray Thornton, a pillar of political and educational life in Arkansas,” Cotton said in a written statement. “Ray leaves a lasting legacy of selfless service and principled leadership.”

Thornton, a child of the Depression who extolled the virtues of hard work and traditional values, graduated high school at 16 before attending Yale University. He attended the University of Texas law school for one year before being commissioned with the U.S. Navy and serving in the Korean War.

He returned to Arkansas, graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law and worked in private practice for 14 years. He was elected Arkansas attorney general in 1970, and after one term, he won election to Congress from southern Arkansas.

The Democrat served on the House Judiciary Committee while it looked at the Watergate break-ins. Thornton hand-drafted original articles of impeachment against Nixon, who resigned after losing support among members of Congress.

Thornton ran for U.S. Senate in 1978 but lost to then-Gov. David Pryor. He went on to serve as president of Arkansas State University from 1980-1984 and the University of Arkansas from 1984-1990.

In 1991, Thornton returned to Congress, this time representing central Arkansas.

“I want to bring America home to the values of honesty, integrity of words and action, dependability and trustworthiness,” Thornton said in announcing his candidacy from the front porch of the house where he was born.

Former State Sen. Bob Johnson volunteered for Thornton’s campaign when he sought his second stint in the U.S. House. Johnson recalled Wednesday how, in his mid-20s, he walked into the campaign office and said he was ready to work.

“Ray saw me from where he was standing at Julie (Baldridge)’s desk and he came walking out. He told me one of the most important things you need to know about working in politics was how to make a good sign. And that’s where I started. I would have paid him to work there, I thought so much of him,” Johnson said.

Thornton ran for state Supreme Court in 1996 because of increasing partisanship in Congress following the 1994 midterms. He served for eight years. Thornton was appointed as interim chair of the state’s Lottery Commission in 2009.

Former Democratic Governor Mike Beebe offered his condolences to Thornton’s family Wednesday.

“He was a gentleman, who always wore a smile and welcomed everyone he met with civility and a warm heart. But he was most admired for his intellect, his integrity, his leadership abilities, and his passion for serving the people of our state,” Beebe said in a written statement.

Current Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thornton would be greatly missed.

“Ray was an Arkansas gem who passionately served the people of this state for many years. He was a man who had a genuine heart for the people of Arkansas. Every time I saw Ray, he had a smile and a word of encouragement,” Hutchinson said.

Thornton is survived by his wife of 60 years, Betty Jo, as well as three daughters, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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