(Feb. 8, 1921 – April 10, 1999)
Alumnus Thornton Wilson pushed Boeing during his 17-year tenure, producing the 757 and 767 jetliners that led the company to preeminence in the global market.
Thornton “T” Wilson was born in Sikeston, Missouri. He graduated from Iowa State College (now University) in aeronautical engineering in 1943, the first graduating class from the Department of Aeronautical Engineering. He joined Boeing that year, returning briefly to Iowa State in 1946 for a teaching assignment and advanced study followed by a year at the California Institute of Technology, where he earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering in 1948.
Wilson rejoined The Boeing Company, where the first airplane to bear the Wilson imprint was the dramatically new B-47 swept-wing bomber. Wilson was the overall project engineer of the B-52 program during the latter stages of its design, and he led the proposal team for Boeing that won the Minuteman ICBM program. Wilson was elected vice president of Boeing in 1963, named company president in 1968 and chief executive officer in 1969, a position he held until 1986. During that time he was responsible for developing and producing the 757 and 767 jetliners and led Boeing to preeminence in the global market. He took charge during the recession of the early 1970s, slashing two thirds of the work force and made the company profitable again. Wilson's cost-cutting caused much bitterness in Seattle, where Boeing was the largest employer. He said himself he was a demanding and tough manager. He valued his employees, and when long-time employees retired, whether the gardener or the chief of security, Wilson made a point of organizing and participating in an appropriate ceremony to wish them well. He did not lavish praise often, but when deserved Wilson happily gave it.
During his 17-year tenure, Wilson pushed Boeing to move into more fuel-efficient commercial aircraft. Wilson was appointed chairman of the board from 1972-1988 and remained as chairman emeritus until his resignation in 1993. Throughout it all, his colleagues regarded him as unpretentious, decisive and clearly in charge.
Iowa State began the T. Wilson Lecture Series in 1994 with a presentation from Thornton himself on Aerospace Design. In 1997 Thornton and his wife gifted the funds to establish a chair in the engineering department. He died in his sleep in April of 1999.
Wilson received various awards, including the James Forrestal Award in 1975, the Wright Brothers Trophy in 1979, and the 1982 Collier Trophy. Wilson also received the National Academy of Science Award for Aeronautical Engineering and the Daniel Guggenheim Medal. In 1983, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame for his achievements during his Boeing career. In 1989, he was inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame. Wilson is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering. In the new era of jet travel, “T” Wilson stood out as one of the great pioneering leaders of the aerospace industry. Through his basic dedication to integrity in craftsmanship, excellence in technology, and professionalism, the Boeing Company became one of the great aerospace enterprises in the world today.
Boeing, 1943-1987 (http://www.boeing.com/history/pioneers/thornton-a-wilson.page)
Supplemented by One Person’s Story by Paul J. Hermann, 2001.