POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — The opus of one’s life is ultimately composed by those who bear witness to the artist’s many attempts to create (and perfect) it.
The late Dr. Raymond (Ray) Howard Thornton was by all accounts, a brilliant pianist and physician. Long before those accomplishments, he was president of the Point Pleasant High School Class of 1986 and co-valedictorian, known for that piano playing at school and at church, as well as teaching piano to young people.
Thornton went on to a life of notable achievement, living in New York state before he passed away while working in Cape Cod on Oct. 1, 2020, at the age of 52.
From his obituary: (He) went on to pursue three degrees in piano performance from the prestigious The Julliard School in NYC. While completing his DMA in piano performance, he completed coursework and was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. From there, he completed his residency in diagnostic radiology and a fellowship in interventional radiology specializing on diseases of the liver at UCSF. His first physician appointment was at The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center where he helped numerous patients, guided residents and fellows, handled quality assurance issues, wrote radiology board questions, and presented papers for the NIH in Washington, DC, Japan and various other places. He also taught and practiced at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City and most recently, Cape Cod Hospital.
Amy Leach, a friend and classmate of Ray’s, said upon learning of his death, she felt inspired to do something in his memory.
“We’ve lost so many people this year to COVID,” she recalled saying to herself last year. “We’ve had so much sadness, we’ve had so much negativity. My first thought was like, ‘I can’t let Ray’s death be just another thing that happened in 2020. What can myself and my friends from the Class of 1986, and friends and family of Ray, do to make a difference?’”
A group effort was soon underway which included setting up a fund at Peoples Bank in Point Pleasant, a Facebook fundraiser and starting a dialogue with those involved in the music program at Point Pleasant Junior/Senior High School — that dialogue would determine how to merge what was needed for students with what was a reflection of Ray.
Leach credits Mason County Board of Education Member, and friend, Ashley Cossin, for going to band and choral staff at PPJ/SHS to determine what they could use in Ray’s memory, given that music had been such a big part of his life, especially when he attended the school.
Eventually, it was determined, there was a need to update the piano lab.
“We thought, what a perfect combination for Ray’s story,” Leach said.
With over $5,000 in funds raised in Ray’s memory, digital pianos, with computer software, were purchased to update the equipment and literally renovate the lab. Because of school discounts, Ray’s friends were able to purchase nearly $10,000 worth of equipment for roughly $5,500.
“Unfortunately I never knew Ray,” Ben Loudin, music educator and band director at PPJ/SHS said. “The Dr. Ray Thornton Piano Lab will make a huge difference in the music department at PPJ/SHS. With the grant, we were able to purchase a Yamaha music teaching lab system and 15 Yamaha keyboards with graded soft touch weighted keys that mimic the feel of actual piano keys. This lab will create interest in music and gives the students the tools they need to be successful musicians.”
“I encourage people, if you have an opportunity to honor someone by improving the community, then try and make that happen,” Leach said. “Making that effort can change somebody’s life dramatically.”
Placed in the piano lab is a plaque that Leach designed. It says, in part, “The Dr. Ray Thornton Memorial Piano Lab. 1986 Class President & Co-Valedictorian.”
As to what this whole endeavor meant to her personally, knowing the loss wouldn’t go away despite the effort, she said: “I think from my standpoint, it (the fundraiser) was paying tribute to a friend who meant so much to me and so much to many in the community, so when these students see the plaque and the name Dr. Ray Thornton, even if they didn’t know him, they might question, who was he? His story is so inspirational.”
Leach pointed to the fact that he came from a rural community in West Virginia and went on to achieve great success in institutions known around the world for both music and medicine.
One of the people in Ray’s life who Leach contacted after his death concerning how to remember him, was his younger sister, Georgia Thornton.
“He loved people and tried to give back as much as he could…giving back was really who he was,” Georgia said.
Georgia felt her brother fostered that spirit of mentorship while at PPHS, teaching music to his peers, paying that quality forward to young doctors later in his career, including his niece, and her daughter, Dr. Kathryn Thornton, who is following in his footsteps. She is currently a third-year resident in neurology at the University of South Carolina.
Unfortunately, Ray’s gifts were interrupted by Lyme Disease that Georgia said went undiagnosed for years.
“No one would listen to him,” she said about his quest to find answers, saying he spent years struggling with physical ailments.
“Doctors get sick too…it’s a fact of life when you don’t get help, you go from bad to worse,” she said.
In addition to Ray’s accomplishments and list of loved ones, his obituary stated: “It is the family’s wish that all who knew and loved Ray would advocate for better diagnosis and treatment of Lyme Disease and better mental health care of all those working in medicine.”
A timely statement given the stresses which were highlighted for medical professionals in 2020.
As for Lyme Disease, when left untreated, it can cause a host of problems and severe illness beyond the flu-like symptoms people can experience at first. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it can cause arthritis, joint swelling, issues with the nervous system like numbness, pain, nerve paralysis, meningitis, irregularities of the heart rhythm can occur, memory and concentration issues and more. The Mayo Clinic reports signs and symptoms such as a rash on other areas of the body, liver inflammation, and other neurological problems.
Though Ray died of suicide, there is no doubt, at least for Georgia and Amy, the physical and mental toll of Lyme Disease contributed to his untimely death.
“Ray had the most distinct laugh and he was always happy,” Leach recalled days growing up with her friend. “To know he killed himself because of this disease, that tears my heart out. I think he got so sick, he didn’t see any hope and that saddened me. All of his greatness and brilliance was ended by a tick — blows my mind.”
Georgia said shortly before her brother’s death, he seemed to be improving.
“He was happy at the end,” she recalled, still piecing the story together. “The only thing you can do is change after something like this happens.”
She said she “never in a million years” thought this would be her family’s story, but it has made her an advocate for suicide prevention awareness. As an educator, she said she often encourages her students to find that one person you can talk to, or be that for someone else.
“One person is all you need,” she said. “Life matters, try to keep people from doing this.”
Though some answers may never come, the gift of music made in Ray’s memory certainly makes sense, for both his sister and friend.
“He loved that school and his classmates,” Georgia said of PPHS, feeling the “gift” of teaching music fits with how she remembered him, and, “who he really was.”
“I just loved Ray as my friend my whole life,” Leach said. “I just thought, you know, someone as special and unique as Ray, we just can’t let it go by without it being used either as an inspirational story or to make a difference in somebody’s life, because you know, that’s just who Ray was.”
Sometimes where words fail, music fills the space. As such, that plaque in the Dr. Ray Thornton Memorial Piano Lab also states a prophetic observation for future students, some who may find the words difficult to come by. Simply put, it promises: “Music is love in search of a word.”
© 2021 Ohio Valley Publishing, all rights reserved.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.