At 10 a.m. Saturday, Barbara and Ross Thornton will take their places at the head of the Old Timers Day parade as this year’s grand marshals in the annual tribute to Madera County’s history.
Barry Goldwater was running for president when they first met at a gathering of local Republicans who were supporting the Arizona senator in that rough and tumble election of 1964.
Ross didn’t make much of an impression on Barbara right away. In fact it took 24 years for them to tie the knot, but when they did, it brought together a 4th generation Madera girl and one of this county’s most ardent community boosters in a marriage in which a blend of history and public service came into sharp focus.
Ross was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1940, moved to Houston in 1950, and later to Illinois where he graduated from high school in Park Ridge in 1958.
Barbara was born in Madera in 1939, where she attended Howard School and graduated from Madera High School in 1957.
Ross, armed as he was with a rich baritone voice, attended radio school in Chicago and got a job in Douglas, Arizona, as a disc jockey. In 1964, he followed the airwaves to Madera where he was employed with K-HOT Radio. Although he joined Foster and Parker Insurance Agency and worked for them for 26 years before retiring in 2013, he never gave up his love for broadcasting. He appeared regularly on Channel 18, often conducting the station’s telethons.
In the half century that followed Ross’s arrival in Madera, he threw himself into serving others in his adopted hometown. The list of his sacrificial efforts to make life better in Madera include:
Madera City Planning Commission — 18 years.
Madera County Planning Commission — eight years (Still serving).
Camarena Health Board of Directors — 25 years (continues to serve).
Madera Community Hospital Foundation Board — 6 years.
Madera Rescue Mission Board member — 5 years.
Sunrise Rotary Club — perfect attendance for 30 years and served one year as president.
Make-A-Wish Foundation — several terms as president.
Judge for Madera County Office of Education Academic Decathlon — 25 years.
Channel 18 PBS — 9 years.
Vice President of Valley West Christian Center’s Board of Directors — 25 years.
President of Sherman Thomas Charter Schools’ Board of Directors.
Member Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast Committee.
Master of Ceremonies during the Madera County Arts Council and Madera Parks and Community Service’s summer concerts in the park for several years.
Madera Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Business Man of the Year in 1998.
Elks Citizen of the Year — 1998-1999.
Madera District Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
Meanwhile, as Ross was devoting his time to community improvement activities, Barbara was carrying on the family legacy bequeathed to her as a 4th generation Maderan.
She and her sister Margie were the daughters of Irene and Domenico (Babe) Sordi, who in turn were the children of Italian immigrants. Babe Sordi was the youngest son of Domenico Sordi, Sr., a prominent member of the Italian community in Madera.
Barbara’s early years were spent in the Howard District, where her parents owned a 60-acre ranch. She has myriad memories of those halcyon days at the old Howard School, especially her teachers, all of whom she remembers.
She grew up in a disciplined but loving family, and learned the meaning of hard work early on, milking cows and tending her family’s vines. The Sordis were entirely self-sufficient even to the extent of making their own butter and mayonnaise.
Barbara was a school majorette and still has her uniform. She and Margie were persistent competitors in the relay races held among the country schools.
After graduating from Madera High, Barbara became a dental hygienist, a profession that occupied her for 30 years.
As Barbara recounts her life and the lives of her parents and grandparents, a panorama of an important part of Madera’s history unfolds. It is the story of Italian immigrants who came to America, worked hard, and endured the good and the bad.
It is the story of a father who almost worked himself to death, laboring as a plumber in town and working his ranch in the country.
It is the story of a grandmother who died early and a grandfather who was murdered in Firebaugh.
It is the story of a mother who became an LVN and worked in the old county hospital.
It is the story of a daughter who learned the lessons her family history taught her and shared them with an Oklahoma transplant and, between them, their five children, eight grandchildren and now one great-grandchild.
Barbara and Ross Thornton, grand marshals of the 2017 Old Timers’ Day parade, have given much, and Madera salutes them.