Eileen Thornton didn’t just love Hamilton. For decades, she was the town’s biggest cheerleader and an influential force always striving to make it better.
“Hamilton was her whole life,” said Cathy DiCostanzo, president of the Sunshine Foundation’s Mercer County Chapter and long-time friend of Thornton. “Anybody who knew Eileen knew that Hamilton came first.”
Thornton passed away suddenly on June 2 at age 75, leaving behind a legacy that reaches far beyond Hamilton. She was a Hamilton councilwoman, a dedicated Democrat and a women’s rights activist, but mostly she’ll be remembered for the countless hours she spent volunteering her time to numerous organizations and for the large network of friends and colleagues she considered family. She had no surviving family in the area.
“Her friends really became her family, and I think we all felt the same way about her–that she was family,” DiCostanzo said.
Thornton was a lifelong resident of Hamilton. She graduated from Cathedral High School and attended Rider University, where she received a bachelor’s degree and studied journalism, commerce and business.
One of the many causes Thornton supported over the years was the women’s rights movement, of which she had been active much of her life. She was president of the former National Women’s Equity Action League from 1976 to 1978 and played a role in the passing of Title IX of the United States Education Amendment of 1972.
It came as no surprise to her friends that Thornton, who planned her own funeral in advance, requested female altar servers at her service. DiCostanzo said that Thornton, a devout Catholic, always wanted to be an altar server growing up, but at the time girls were not allowed to serve in that roll.
“She wanted women to succeed and she would stop at nothing,” DiCostanzo said. “As long as it was someone of character, she would take them under her wing. That was her mission, that was her drive.”
So, at Thornton’s funeral on June 9 at Our Lady of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church, the altar servers were all female. It was one of several requests Thornton had made that were fulfilled. A bagpiper played outside of the church, and celtic music was played throughout the service, an ode to her Irish heritage.
Linda Bozzarello, Thornton’s neighbor and friend of 31 years recalls Thornton traveled to Ireland, where she had family, on several occasions.
‘She wanted to serve the people. That was her goal. Especially Hamilton. That was her love.’
Four years ago, Thornton adopted a cairn terrier from a shelter in Alabama. Her previous dog, also a cairn terrier, was named Hamilton after her hometown.
Everyone who knew Thornton was well aware of her love for her dogs. When Hamilton passed away, Thornton held a funeral and when she adopted Grady O’Shea, there was a blessing ceremony. Friends say she treated her dogs as if they were her children.
When it came time to name her dog, she called upon DiCostanza for advice. She was torn between two of her family names—Grady and Shea, and DiCostanza recommended combining the two and thus, Grady O’Shea was named.
“She just adored him,” Bozzarello said.
Her love for animals extended beyond her own pets. In 2012, Gov. Chris Christie appointed her the sole public member of the New Jersey Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, a volunteer role she served until her death.
She served the residents of the state of New Jersey for the majority of her career. She was a public information officer for the Department of Labor and Industry, project specialist for the Division of Travel and Tourism, and project specialist for the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.
When Thornton retired from the state, she ran and was elected to council in Hamilton Township in 2001, serving from 2002 to 2005. She served as council president in 2004.
“She wanted to serve the people,” DiConstanza said. “That was her goal. Especially Hamilton. That was her love.”
Thornton actively advocated for other elected officials. Despite her affiliation with the Democratic party, several colleagues said she was the first person to cross party lines to help others with their cause.
“If she thought you would make a good candidate and elected official, she was your cheerleader 100 percent,” said JoAnne Bruno, close friend of Thornton and fellow member of the Hamilton Democratic Club.
Thornton was serving as president of the Hamilton Democratic Club at the time of her death.
“At the end of the day, even though she was a very strong Democrat, what was more important to her was the fiber of one’s character,” said Hamilton Board of Education member Sue Ferrara.
‘She wanted it to be the best that it could be. Hamilton was number one to her.’
Ferrara—who ran without backing from a political party— said she was grateful for the support she received from Thornton. Ferrara said they met when Thornton was running for council and said she was always upbeat and eager to get others involved.
Another board member, Christopher Scales, said he met Thornton three years ago, while running for the Board of Education when he was 18. She quickly became Scales’s biggest supporter and mentor. He was a pallbearer at Thornton’s funeral.
Although their friendship was cut short, Scales said Thornton imparted her wisdom on him often.
“She has given me multiple pieces of advice but the one that sticks with me to this day and will for the rest of my life is to always do the right thing, no matter what,” Scales said. “That’s a motto that I continue to live by each and every day.”
Scales will be entering his senior year at Rider University next fall and will not seek re-election to the Board of Education. He says that Thornton treated him like a family member, and he considered her as part of his family.
Scales said that Thornton’s funeral showed just how many people Thornton touched throughout her life.
“It was a testament to all the good she did for so many people and for her community,” Scales said. “It was a moving ceremony and a fitting one for someone who devoted so much of her time to helping other people.”
Among her strongest attributes was her loyalty, her friends said. She judged people honestly, and if Thornton found you to be a good person, she stood by you. Among those people was Bill Baroni, a Hamilton resident who served in the state assembly and senate as a Republican.
Baroni is perhaps most known for his work as the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where he oversaw the reconstruction of the World Trade Center and later became embroiled in the Bridgegate scandal. Baroni spoke at a luncheon held after Thornton’s funeral, and he noted that when Bridgegate erupted, nearly all of the people who had known him abandoned him. But Thornton stuck by him, and supported him through his trial and sentencing.
Thornton exhibited this loyalty to many people and many causes in her life. It led her to served on the Hamilton Township Economic Development Advisory Commission for 12 years, and to shop almost exclusively at locally owned businesses. Friends say they would always see Thronton’s car with her signature “EPT” custom license plate parked outside of various businesses. If she had to pay $5 more to buy an item at a small business in Hamilton, she would.
John Strycharz, owner of the John’s Reading Center in the Mercerville Shopping Center, worked with Thornton on the commission and were close friends.
“She understood that the businesses were the backbone of the community,” Strycharz said.
Not only did she shop locally, she became friends with many of the business owners. Strycharz said Thornton was a staple during his family’s Christmas celebrations and treated him as family. He says just before her death, she was already talking about Christmas and planning fundraisers for the holiday season.
Thornton volunteered her time and energy to many local charities and organizations. She helped raise money for the Mercer County Chapter of the Sunshine Foundation, Interfaith Caregivers of Mercer County, Tender Hearts, and the Girl Scouts of Central and Southern New Jersey.
“She had a heart of gold,” Strycharz said.
Those closest to Thornton say they are still grappling with their sudden loss. Not only did they lose a friend, they lost a steadfast supporter of the town they all love.
“I still look over at her house and I see her car and I see her flag and I just can’t believe she’s not here,” Bozzarello said. “She gave so much to so many people, and she had so much more to give.”
“She loved Hamilton,” Bruno said. “She wanted it to be the best that it could be. Hamilton was number one to her.”