Doc Jones Thurston entered UNC at age 16 and graduated Cum Laude in 1932, a member of the last class of the School of Engineering. There were no engineering jobs available as the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression. President Roosevelt ordered businesses to hire a certain number of engineering graduates, and as a result he received an offer from one of the nation’s largest corporations but declined because he did not believe government should interfere with private enterprise.
Instead, he decided to create his employment from his own vision, and Thurston Motor Lines was born and he soon became a leader in the motor carrier industry. Doc Thurston actively represented the industry at the local, state, and national level, often appearing before congressional committees.
As it had become necessary for him to travel extensively, he realized the need for air travel and bought the company’s first plane. Shortly thereafter he founded Thurston Aviation, Inc., a charter flying service and Piper and Cessna dealership.
He always saw the value in investing in his employees, and provided health care, pension, and educational opportunities long before this was common practice.
Doc was a kind, unpretentious and humble man who was likely to help his employees unload a truck one day, and then attend a White House prayer breakfast the next. He was an ordained deacon and a Sunday School teacher in his church.
Doc Jones Thurston, Jr. was devoted to his family. His favorite pastime was to go hunting with his son, Doc III. When the pain in his knees shortened some of their hunting trips, the seed was planted for his commitment to the cause of arthritis research.
Through the years Doc had observed how arthritis had impacted his quality of life and that of his 3,000 employees, and at the time doctors had little more then aspirin to offer for treatment. He became determined that the study of arthritis-related diseases be on a par with cancer and heart disease, and set out to make that vision into a reality through his generous donations to medical research on arthritis and related diseases.
In 1981 he pledged $1 million to develop the research center and facility we have today. He later increased that pledge to $3 million to build the Thurston Building, which houses the Thurston Arthritis Research Center.
His philanthropy was not limited to arthritis research. He donated the Jessie Jenkins Thurston Laboratory to the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in honor of his mother. He also donated to the Division of Nephrology and to gene therapy research. One of his airplanes was outfitted with a hospital bed for transporting burn victims and friends who needed treatment, and he also gave generously to his church and to church-affiliated colleges.
“He had a very strong feeling that every human being should strive to leave the world a better place and he lived his philosophy every day.” Stella Thurston said of her husband. “He wanted to see a real breakthrough in the causes and the cure of arthritis. He wanted that to be his lasting gift to mankind.”
Doc did not live to see our building completed, but he knew from having studied the smallest details that it would be among the finest research centers anywhere. His loving help to those less fortunate added joy to his life. Nothing made him happier then to see those with whom he worked become successful. His personal creed stood as a challenge to us all: “I do not judge. I leave my fellow man to do his best. I am only concerned that I do my best for God, my family, my church, and my employees, and that I handle well those things entrusted to me.”
Doc Jones Thurston, Jr. is survived by is wife Stella Rutledge Thurston; his son, Doc Jones Thurston, III; his daughter, Leigh Thurston Myers; her husband Frank Bradford Myers, Jr.; and their children, Elizabeth and Katherine.