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SAVOY — Paul W. Thurston, 75, died Thursday (April 30, 2020) at Willowbrook Memory Care in Savoy, in much the same way that he lived – holding the hand of the love of his life of 49 years, Cathy.

Although he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s many years prior to his death, the energy and determination with which he lived transcended that disease. He will long be remembered not just by his wife, four children and their spouses, his 11 grandchildren, his beloved brothers and other family members, but also by the friends, colleagues, students and players who had the privilege of knowing him along the way.   

Paul was born June 27, 1944, in Ames, Iowa, as the second of four sons of Orville W. Thurston and Jean Calmer Thurston. He married Catherine Osborne Thurston in 1970. She survives.

Also surviving are his brothers, Stan Thurston (Dotty) of Des Moines, Iowa, and and Lloyd Thurston (Allison) of Broomfield, Colo.; a daughter, Rachel Goddard (Jeff) of Carmel, Ind.; three sons, Paul W. Thurston Jr. (Ramona Powell) of Chicago, Michael Thurston (Nicole Griglione) of Hartland, Wis., and Daniel Thurston (Ashley) of Eden Prairie, Minn.; as well as 11 grandchildren, Sarah, Maren, Eliana, Thomas, Ella, Madelyn, Josephine, Elizabeth, Emmeline, Luke and Vivianne. Also surviving are six nephews (Adam, Ben, Nate, Thomas, Jack and Will Thurston) and six stepnieces and stepnephews (Kelly Whiting, Abby Hodgson, Molly Harris and Brianne, Lauren and Alex Bumpus).

Paul was preceded in death by his parents; his older brother, Gary of Wakefield, R.I.; and an infant grandchild, Hannah. Other family members mourning his death are Cathy’s brothers, John Osborne of Santa Monica, Calif., and Bill Osborne (Anne McArdle) of Washington, D.C., and their daughters, Elena and Kara Osborne.

Paul graduated from Marshalltown High School, Iowa, where he excelled in basketball (two-time Iowa state champions), football and golf, and was governor of Iowa Boys State. He graduated in 1967 from Grinnell College, where he was named All-Conference defensive end and still holds a football school record. In 1969, he received a master’s degree in history from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

During this period, Paul trained with the Peace Corps, served inner-city youth with Outward Bound/Upward Bound and Eastern Kentucky with Vista Volunteers, and spent six months on an economic development research project in Costa Rica. This commitment to social justice inspired him to devote his life to support public education and train its future leaders.

Returning to the Midwest, Paul obtained J.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Iowa (law/educational administration) in 1974/1975. He then served the University of Illinois’ Department of Organization and Educational Leadership for 28 years (1974 -2002) in various roles, including professor and department head.

He was the executive secretary of the Illinois Association of School Personnel Administrators, the director of the Office of Professional Development and Public Service, and from 1990-1993, the director of the National Center for School Leadership. He was also a member of the University of Illinois Senate.

Even after he retired in 2002, he continued teaching part time, consulted on national school superintendent searches (with Hazard, Young, Attea) and, when asked, came out of retirement to serve as interim department head.

Paul was prolific and innovative. Together with his esteemed colleagues, he implemented numerous new programs: school executive leadership/special executive doctoral programs, new principals’ assistance program, a joint degree program in law and education, and online courses as early as 1998. He was called upon to mediate contract disputes between teachers’ unions and school boards.

Professor Thurston was the dissertation director for more than 40 doctoral dissertations. He wrote or edited nine books and over 35 research papers or technical reports related to school leadership. He also received numerous awards, including the 2007 Van Miller Award (for outstanding contributions through leadership in education in Illinois), the Excellence in Campus Teaching Award, and the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Education Administration Alumni Association.

Those who knew Paul were struck by the intensity with which he lived. There was never a competition that was too trivial. Family bridge nights became exercises in mental fortitude. He was a low-post force to be reckoned with during neighborhood basketball games. He brought a wicked slice to the tennis court.

While Paul accomplished so much professionally, he cared most about the quality of his relationships with others. Lying just beyond his fiery disposition, Paul had the tenderest of hearts. He read, sang and doled out back rubs to his children. He sat with them on the screened-in porch to watch summer storms blow in. He supported them unilaterally. He took pride in his rose bushes. And he loved being outdoors, including his daily runs, hiking in Allerton Park, biking (his commute), skiing, golfing, tennis, and canoeing in the Canadian Boundary Waters.

Paul was an active member of both St. Matthew’s and St. Mary’s Catholic parishes. His Iowa farm background shaped his priorities, including the value he placed on family, hard work, community, humility, frugality and service.

Donations may be made to the University of Illinois Foundation’s Paul W. Thurston scholarship fund supporting graduate students in educational and organizational leadership (; #774950), or the Alzheimer’s Association.

A gathering to celebrate Paul’s life will be held at a later date. Morgan Funeral Home in Savoy is handling arrangements, and condolences may be offered at