Fred Thorne gave all but 30 of his 77 years to the children of Sparta and Kent County as a quietly competent and humble school board member who was supportive of staff and committed to creating new opportunities for students.
Mr. Thorne died Nov. 2 after a long illness. He served 25 years as a member of the Sparta Area Schools Board of Education, before being elected by school boards throughout the region to represent their districts on the Kent ISD School Board in 1997, a seat he held until his death.
Thorne’s commitment to public service began when he entered the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 16. He was recognized as “Marine of the Year” on Nov. 10, 1961 and, upon his return to West Michigan, began an equally distinguished period of community service, beginning with his election to the Sparta Village Council.
Soon thereafter, he became a member of the Sparta Board of Education, where he was instrumental in the acquisition of land for the current high school and athletic facilities. Fred’s “friendly, humble, ‘can do, kids first’ attitude opened doors and made things happen,” former Sparta Superintendent Mike Weiler said of Mr. Thorne’s service.
Nearly 22 years of service to all of the children in Kent County followed a quarter century of service in Sparta. During his tenure, Kent ISD built the new Kent Education Center Beltline High School for emotionally impaired students and the Pine Grove Learning Center. It also expanded Career Technical Education programming to include an aviation program at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, the Health Sciences Early College Academy at the Cook DeVos Center for Health Sciences, and extended culinary arts and health career diagnostic and therapeutic educational programming at the Downtown Market. In addition,as a member of the Kent ISD board, he supported the creation of Kent Innovation High, a project-based laboratory school, and the MySchool@Kent and SuccessLink online programs.
In a letter to former Kent ISD Superintendent Kevin Konarska, Mr. Thorne wrote that he moved with his family to a rural home near Sparta following World War II. While “my mother encouraged me to continue with school, when I was 16 years old I lied about my age and joined the Marine Corps,” he recalled. “While in the Marines, as time permitted, by taking high school courses, I eventually received my High School Diploma …
“My education beyond high school has been the result of real-life experiences working on a cattle drive as a cowboy on a ranch in Montana, working in a factory as a machine operator, riding the rodeo circuit, working as a private detective with Pinkerton, my experience from eight years in the Marine Corps and working as a sales executive.”
Of his Marine of the Year award, Mr. Thorne reminisced in the letter and revealed, “I had the high privilege of being a small part of history while on a classified ‘recon’ mission in February of 1962 when I was ordered back from my position to take a phone call.
“Upon answering the field phone, I found myself speaking to someone who told me that the only man-made object he could see at the time was the Great Wall of China. Only then did I fully realize I was speaking to John Glenn as he circled the earth in ‘Freedom Seven’ … calling to congratulate me on being selected as Marine of the Year.”
Mr. Thorne is survived by his wife of 23 years, Barbara; four children; three stepsons; 13 grandchildren; 12 great-grandchildren; and some 120,000 students in the 20 public schools, 13 charter schools and Christian and Catholic schools served by Kent ISD.
A funeral service will be held 11 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 22, at Mamrelund Lutheran Church in Kent City. Contributions to help defray the family’s medical expenses may be made at Mr. Thorne’s GoFundMe page.