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Furniture retail veteran George "Buck" Thornton dies at 73

Former Heilig-Meyers, Rhodes exec

DUCK, N.C. — George "Buck" Thornton III, a retired industry retail executive, marine, boat racer and Outer Banks developer, died here Jan. 3. He was 73.

Thornton began a long career in the furniture industry at an early age, working in his father's Thornton's Furniture store, first stocking drinks after school and eventually working up to stock boy and store manager.

Thornton's merged with the former Richmond, Va.-based Heilig-Meyers in 1970 and Thornton eventually left an executive role at that chain, only to return in 1997 to lead Heilig-Meyers' then-troubled Rhode's division as executive vice president.

Thornton also was a champion outboard speedboat racer, winning 18 national championships and two world championships. He was admitted to the American Power Boat Assn. Hall of Champions in 1977.

In 1984, Thornton began a career in real estate development with his brother on North Carolina's Outer Banks, where they built the Ships Watch residential community in Duck. Thornton also later developed the Buck Island residential community and TimBuckII Shopping Village in Corolla, N.C.

Thornton hosted beach music festivals in the Outer Banks and spearheaded fundraising for the renovation of the Whale Head Club, a former hunting preserve, serving for 15 years as president of the Whalehead Preservation Trust.

In 2005, North Carolina awarded Thornton the N.C. Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state's highest civilian honor, and in 2007, he received the Outer Banks Citizen of the year award, presented by the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce and RBC Centura Bank.

"He was one of a kind," said Steve Kincaid, president of manufacturer Kincaid Furniture and a close friend for some 35 years.

"A lot of people think small, But buck was a big picture guy," recalled Kincaid, noting that Thornton's strength including merchandising prowess, both at Heilig-Meyers and Rhodes. Kincaid said Thornton "knew how to pull that lever" to get consumers into the stores.

"He made it exciting. Everything he did was exciting," Kincaid said. "Everybody around him was energized."

Kincaid remembered going to boat races with Thornton, who "was like Richard Petty," drawing attention and signing autographs.

Thornton is survived by his wife, Bronwyn Kenneweg Thornton, two sons, a daughter, two grandchildren and siblings.

Services will be held Wednesday at St. Andrews by the Sea, Nags Head, N.C., at 2:30 p.m. A celebration of his life will follow in The Oceanview Hall at Jeanette's Pier in Nags Head.

Donations may be made to The Whalehead Preservation Trust for the Buck Thornton Memorial Fund, online at www.Whaleheadclub.org.

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