Live a simple life, Fred Thornton always told his children and grandchildren.
A smaller pair of hands usually worked beside his, whether he was framing a house or rigging a shrimp boat. He taught practical skills to his sons, nephews and even children he “adopted” along the way. He was patient but firm.
More importantly, he taught them the joy of life was in their families and the time they spent together, preferably on a fishing boat or at a table laden with crawfish and ribs off the grill.
When his two sons later got into trouble and went to prison, their father was disappointed, but he stood by them.
Being there for friends was also paramount, in Thornton’s opinion. He passed on this lesson through the example he set.
His wife, Lisa, his sons, 10 grandchildren and many friends will celebrate his life “Thornton-style” this summer on Deer Island. Thornton, 55, passed away last week from an illness diagnosed in his 20s, porphyria cutanae tarda, a metabolic disorder that caused his liver and kidneys to shut down.
He managed the illness for most of his life, working at Ingalls as a welder and pipe fitter, then shrimping and working beside his father in a taxidermy shop. He and his wife also built shrimp nets for the shrimpers of Biloxi and Ocean Springs, and assembled webbing for pogy nets.
He also built houses, rebuilding his own house off Lemoyne Boulevard in St. Martin after Hurricane Katrina.
He taught sons David and Fred Jr., called Freddie, to build houses and work on cars. He convinced a nephew to take welding courses so he could secure a solid job.
David Thornton’s girlfriend got pregnant when he was 16. His father was there for him, as always.
“I dropped out of school and I was working, doing odds and end jobs,” said David Thornton, 34. “He said, ‘Well, we’re going to buy this shrimp boat. You’ve got to take care of them. You’ll just have to get out there and work.”
Lisa Thornton said: “He knew a lot of things and he liked to share his knowledge. He always said, ‘If you don’t learn something new every day, you’re not paying attention.’”
He loved his friends. Two friends and neighbors in St. Martin, Tiffany and Robert Fayard, swam out of their house during Hurricane Katrina. A dialysis patient, Robert Fayard needed treatment after the storm. But he was more concerned about his 42-foot Lafitte skiff, which Katrina had beached in a tree on someone’s property.
Although his own property was in shambles, Thornton insisted he would take care of the boat and told Fayard he had to go.
“‘I give you my word, ‘I will get that boat,’” Tiffany Fayard recalls Thornton saying. “I don’t know how he did it, but he got the boat out of the tree and had it on a trailer on our property when we got back.”
He also, literally, gave someone the shirt off his back. Witnesses said they had heard the expression but never seen it happen.
The Thorntons were at a pier in D’Iberville. A cold wind was blowing. A homeless man Thornton knew was wearing a wet shirt. Thornton insisted the man take off the shirt so Lisa Thornton could take it home and wash it. Thornton pulled off his own shirt and made the man put it on.
He loved nothing better than being on a boat. He, his wife and friends took adults-only weekend trips to Cat Island. They also loved to take the grandchildren to Deer Island, where they could fish, play on the beach, and for treasure — shells and bleached fish bones.
Thornton was pained when his sons shunned his advice to work hard for their money and got arrested for trafficking cocaine. Both went to prison after pleading guilty in December 2010.
Their father visited and took the grandchildren to see them. He always answered their collect telephone calls. Freddie finished his sentence first, in May 2015. David was released in January.
One of his father’s greatest desires was to reunite the family on his boat, “Charlie’s Chillin’,” named after his own father and best friend, taxidermist Charles Thornton. He was hoping they could all head for the island.
It was not to be. Thornton’s health failed fast. Lisa took him to the emergency room in March. His organs were shutting down, they learned.
His family and friends all visited the last weekend of his life. He was able to walk outside, sit in the yard and feel the breeze on his face. A simple thing, but it felt so good.
His wife is glad he did not linger in bed. Sunlight was not good for his illness, but he hated being cooped up indoors. When he died, Lisa lay with her head on his chest and David held his hand.
The water well went out this past weekend at the Thornton house. David had to fix it. He so wanted to ask his father, “‘Hey, old man, what are you doing?’” and get his advice on repairs. His Dad always knew what to do, or could find the answers.
Fred Thornton was a good and patient teacher. He left his son with the skills he needed to fix that well himself. And so he did.