Robert J. Thorne

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Robert Julius Thorne (February 1875 – March 20, 1955) was an American businessman who was president of Montgomery Ward from 1917 to 1920.


Robert Thorne was born in February 1875 in Chicago, Illinois, to George R. Thorne. The senior Thorne was a former major in the Civil War who co-founded Montgomery Ward with his brother-in-law, A. Montgomery Ward.[1][2]

He received a bachelor's degree from Cornell University in 1897. He was active in the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity.[1][2][3]

Robert Thorne joined Montgomery Ward's Kansas City, Missouri, branch immediately upon his graduation from Cornell. He rose to become branch manager, and then was transferred to Chicago where he was manager of the store's flagship store and a vice president of the company. In 1917, his older brother and Montgomery Ward president, William C. Thorne, died unexpectedly. Robert J. Thorne assumed the presidency of the company.[1][2]

Thorne married the former Katherine B. Sterrett.[1] The couple had five daughters: Roberta, Katherine, Laura, Narcissa and Ellen Catherine.[citation needed] His mother-in-law, Catherine Dietrich Willey, died in the sinking of the luxury ocean liner Lusitania in 1915.[citation needed]

Employers' Association of Chicago[edit]

Thorne co-founded the Employers' Association of Chicago in 1902, and played a significant role in the 1905 Chicago Teamsters' strike. He was accused in mid-1905 of bribing transport company owners to lock out their union workers in order to force them to strike.[4]

U.S. Army service[edit]

During World War I, Thorne served as a civilian in the United States Army. He joined the Army on January 1, 1918, as an unpaid volunteer. He was named an assistant to George W. Goethals, Acting Quartermaster General of the Army. Thorne helped to radically reorganize the failing Army logistical and supply system. On March 8, 1918, Goethals named Thorne "Assistant to the Acting Quartermaster General," and issued an order to his troops that all orders from Thorne "will have the force and effect as if performed by the Acting Quartermaster General himself."[5] Thorne left government service after the war ended.[6]

During his tenure with the U.S. Army, Thorne trained Brigadier General Robert E. Wood in logistics. Wood later became vice-president and then chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Company, one of Montgomery Ward's fiercest competitors.[7]

For his work in successfully restructuring the Army's supply system and measurably improving America's warfighting capacity during World War I, Thorne was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1919.[2][8]

In 1918, Thorne built a 28-room mansion on a 14-acre (57,000 m2) estate on Sheridan Roade in Lake Forest, Illinois. The estate, called White Oaks, became a major showcase home in the area.[9] During the 1930s, Thorne became president of the board of trustees of Lake Forest Academy.[2]

Retirement and death[edit]

Thorne retired from the presidency of Montgomery Ward in 1920 due to failing health. He and his wife traveled extensively for several years.[1][2]

In 1942, White Oaks was torn down and the Thornes moved to Coronado, California. In 1950, they moved to La Jolla, California. Thorne died there on March 20, 1955, after a lengthy illness.[1]

Katherine Thorne died in 1963.[10]


The Robert Julius Thorne Chair in Political Economy in the Department of Economics at Cornell University is endowed in Thorne's name.

A fund at the Delta Chi Chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon at Cornell was endowed by Thorne, and also carries his name.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "R.J. Thorne, 80, Son of Ward's Founder, Dies," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 21, 1955.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "R. J. Thorne, 80, Led Mail Order Firm". New York Times. March 21, 1955. ... a former president of the mail order house, died today in his home in La Jolla, Calif. He was 80 years old. He had been in failing health for some time. ... 
  3. ^ Who Was Who in America, Marquis-Who's Who, Inc., 1966.
  4. ^ Andrew Wender Cohen, The Racketeer's Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern American Economy, 1900-1940, Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-521-83466-X; "Labor War in Chicago," The New York Times, November 1, 1903; "Chicago Strike Leads to 49 Indictments," The New York Times, July 2, 1905; "Project to End Strike," Chicago Daily Tribune, June 18, 1905.
  5. ^ Quoted in James E. Hewes, Jr., From Root to McNamara: Army Organization and Administration, Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C., 1975, p. 34.
  6. ^ Alfred D. Chandler, Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise, MIT Press, 1969. ISBN 0-262-53009-0; "Goethals Completes Reorganization Plans," The New York Times, February 22, 1918.
  7. ^ John S. DeMott, "Sear's Sizzling New Vitality," Time, August 20, 1984.
  8. ^ "Felton and Thorne to Receive the D.S.M.," The New York Times. January 16, 1919.
  9. ^ Kim Coventry, Daniel Meyer, Arthur H. Miller, Classic Country Estates of Lake Forest: Architecture and Landscape Design 1856-1940, W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. ISBN 0-393-73099-9
  10. ^ "Widow of Ward Executive Dies at 86 in La Jolla," Chicago Tribune, August 11, 1963.
  11. ^ H. William Fogle, Jr. (2005). "The Deke House at Cornell: A Concise History of the Delta Chi Chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon, 1870-1930" (PDF). The Delta Chi Association, Ithaca NY. p. 58. Retrieved 2010-12-31.