Nancye Thornberry
Nancye Thornberry

Lakeland has lost one of its matriarchs. Nancye Thornberry, who founded the Polk Senior Games and helped start Mayfaire-by-the-Lake when she led the Polk Museum of Art, died Tuesday night after a long illness, She was 89.

Thornberry, who enriched both the physical and cultural health of the community, had been issued two keys to the city of Lakeland.

“She was one of the friends who is irreplaceable,” former Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs said.

Thornberry started the Polk Senior Games after visiting Syracuse, N.Y., in 1991 and seeing her brother participate in a similar competition. She was fascinated by what she saw. And she brought it home.

In 1992 the first annual Polk Senior Games was held. It now has 2,500 participants and 700 volunteers each year.

The games are a series of sports competitions for people 50 and older, designed to promote healthy lifestyles via sport, education and  fitness.

Thornberry is a member of the Polk County Sports Hall of Fame for her work with the Polk Senior Games.

Family members said Thornberry for decades mailed a sweet letter once a month to 100 friends and family. 

Son Gus Palas and namesake granddaughter Nancye Blair Black, both Lakeland entrepreneurs, recalled the credo that made the head of the family tick:

“You’re either going to do something or sit back and watch other people do it. It’s what comes out of your heart, what comes out of your body, that makes you want to make a place better than it was when you arrived.”

Thornberry played a role in the 1974 opening of the Lakeland Civic Center, now the RP Funding Center.

In 1977 she was named executive director of the Polk Museum of Art. And in 1978 she was instrumental in organizing Mayfaire by-the-Lake, Lakeland’s annual Mother’s Day weekend arts show on the shores of Lake Morton.

“You’re either going to do something or sit back and watch other people do it. It’s what comes out of your heart, what comes out of your body, that makes you want to make a place better than it was when you arrived.”

Nancye Thornberry

Sarah McKay called Thornberry a dear friend. “Nancye was one of the most loving, caring, and ethical people on earth,” McKay said. “She was a mover and shaker and she had many, many friends.”

Thornberry survived three major bouts with cancer in her life.

She was born in Bourbon County, Ky., on Dec. 15, 1930, and became the first woman to serve on the city council of Richmond, Ky.

In 1950 she married Earnest “Gus” Palas and the marriage lasted until the early 1960s, Thornberry’s daughter Deena Wilbur said.

She said her mother married Rudy Thornberry in 1968, the year the couple moved to Lakeland. Rudy Thornberry, a Florida Tile executive, died in 2009.

Wilbur said her mother was a teacher at Kathleen Middle School and Lakeland High School before getting into high-profile endeavors. 

Friends knew Thornberry as kind and a prolific writer of cards and letters, Wilbur said. She said one of her mom’s friends told her that Thornberry “was the only person who would write back to say ‘thank you’ for a thank you note.”

One of Thornberry’s best attributes was that she always had solutions for problems, her friend Chris Sikes said. “She was the most wonderful friend you could wish for.”

 Another friend, Florida Southern College executive Rob Tate, said Thornberry “had a positive, contagious spirit.”

Tate said the Senior Games should be named after Thornberry. “Without her it never would have survived.”

Funeral arrangements have not yet been made.Thornberry is survived by six children; Linda Bradley, Gus Palas, Julie Palas, Lisa Palas, Bruce Thornberry and Deena Wilbur.

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  1. Thank you for your lovely tribute to my mother, Nancye Thornberry. So many people loved her and have benefitted from her passions and her generousity — especially me. Very grateful for your article.

  2. I had the pleasure of getting to know your mother in a medical setting in her home. What a wonderful person. I went back and visited her again about a year later. I had such a fun time getting to know her and felt so warm and welcome in her home. Your family is truly blessed to have had such a wonderful matriarch. I’m sure she is in heaven. She was an angel here on Earth. Your family has my deepest sympathies. God bless you all.

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