Robert Thornburg

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PEORIA - Robert Watts Thornburg, 86, formerly of Peoria, passed away on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, at his winter home in Estero, Fla.

He was Dean Emeritus of Boston University.

Robert was born on Oct. 10, 1927, in Chicago. He graduated from DePauw University, with graduate study at Garrett Theological Seminary at Northwestern University and at Union Seminary at Columbia University, and received honorary Doctorate Degrees from DePauw University and Illinois Wesleyan University.

He joined his father and his twin brother as an ordained United Methodist (UMC) Minister, serving parish churches in Chicago, Northbrook and Peoria, Ill., before becoming the Associate General Secretary of the UMC Board of Higher Education and Ministry. While in Chicago, the Chicago Chamber of Commerce named him one of their "Ten Outstanding Young Men." During the 1960s and 1970s, he was an active leader in human and civil rights, chairing the Human Rights Commission in Peoria, Ill. From 1978, until his retirement in 2001, Robert was Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, with responsibility for the religious activities at the University, as well as serving on the faculty of the School of Theology. For 23 years, he was the "voice" of Marsh Chapel on Sunday morning on WBUR. During the 1980s, he became a nationally recognized expert on destructive religious cults through writings, speeches and work with cult members and their families.

His love of sports made him a major fan of the BU basketball team, traveling with them to virtually every game. The university honored him with his induction into Phi Beta Kappa and the Scarlet Key award. Throughout his life he served as a trustee of numerous other charitable, religious and educational organizations, often in leadership roles. Bob was known for his passion for his work and his love of people, always looking at the bright side of life and the good in everyone.

His greatest love was for his family, including gatherings in their Boston, Berkshires, and New Hampshire homes, along with great reunion trips for the children and grandchildren; he often called them "his investment in memories." When Bob's mobility became more limited, he enjoyed regular Facebook communication with his grandchildren and a wide circle of "friends," including many former Boston University students.

He is survived by his second wife of 35 years, Ann; his twin brother, Richard of Peabody, Mass.; his sister, Mary Cooper of Rochester, N.Y.; his children, Beth Thornburg of Ashland City, Tenn., Rob Thornburg of Allentown, Pa., Judy Zimmerman of Franklin, Tenn., and Anne Mann of Eugene, Ore.; eight grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and his first wife, Carol Thornburg of Nashville, Tenn.

A private service for the family was held in Florida. A memorial service will be held on Feb. 15, at 1 p.m. at Marsh Chapel at Boston University, 735 Commonwealth Ave., Boston.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to the Animal Rescue League of Boston or a .

Condolences may be expressed online at

Published in Peoria Journal Star on Jan. 7, 2014
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