Choked-back tears and laughter were the order of the day at Winnfield Rotary Club’s meeting on November 3, 2021, as the program arranged by Rotarian of the week, Ted Wold, unfolded. Former Winnfield Mayor, Deano Thornton, was honored with a tribute for his many contributions to the well-being of the community over his long years of service here, as attested to by his friends and colleagues, Dr. Mark Shelton, Carolyn Phillips and David Adams. He was also honored by a proclamation by the City of Winnfield honoring him for his contributions to Winnfield by current Winnfield Mayor George Moss, and a certificate of appreciation by the Winnfield Rotary Club.
The program began with reminiscences by Dr. Shelton, who recalls first meeting Deano Thornton at the age of six, when he was introduced to the new student in first grade at Eastside Elementary School by principal Don Turner in 1962. Deano’s family moved here from Malvern, Arkansas that year and opened Deano’s Shoe Store. Dr. Shelton spoke fondly of his and Deano’s school days, about the time they painted the basketball red and white when playing on the junior high basketball team and it failed to dry before time for pre-game layups and made red splotches all over the backboard, and times they got in trouble at school in Ronald Canerday’s and Peewee Austin’s classes for minor offenses. Most memorable of all was the time Deano made a half-court shot on the buzzer in a game against Montgomery to win the game as well the basketball tournament. Dr. Shelton also remarked that he was particularly fond of Deano’s father, and grateful to Deano for connecting him with his beloved horse, horses being another interest the two men share, besides basketball and health care.
Next, Mrs. Carolyn Phillips reminisced about Mr. Thornton’s tenure as Winnfield City Marshall for twelve years, and his stepping down from that position in 1993 to run for mayor of Winnfield. Mrs. Phillips also retired that year from the LSU Extension Service and had decided to run for mayor as well, so she and Deano were adversaries and yet became fast friends in the course of the campaign. Mr. Thornton won the election, but Mrs. Phillips ended up with a new job after all as she was able to assist the City with the Main Street project undertaken soon thereafter, she worked on the location of the Jeld Wen plant in Winn Parish, and later became director of the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame, all of which involved working with Mayor Thornton. Mrs. Phillips noted that Mr. Thornton has served on the Winn Parish Democratic Executive Committee for several years, and is currently Chairman of the Hog Dog Trials committee, an event that brings a lot of hospitality business to town. She said Deano always said that if, as mayor, you do something the public can see, you are doing a good job, and Deano did just that in the four terms he served as the City of Winnfield’s Mayor from 1993 to 2009.
In 2009, Mayor Thornton decided not to run for re-election as mayor and stepped down from that position, but he did not step back from service to the community he loves. Indeed, one might say he stepped up even more! He has continued to serve on the local Democratic executive committee, and on various boards involved in the improvement of Winnfield and Winn Parish. But the biggest and best was yet to come!
In 2009, Deano Thornton’s mission upon leaving the mayor’s office was to establish a local facility to provide quality health care for Medicaid and Medicare recipients here in Winn Parish. He had discovered when his adult son was grievously injured in an auto accident that Winnfield had no such facility and the closest available was in Coushatta. He determined to change that, and thus became the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Winn Community Health Center. The center is an FQHC, meaning it meets the qualifications for accepting both Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement for treating patients. Patients insured under other plans are welcome, and uninsured patients are charged on a sliding scale based on income.
As related to the Rotarians and guests in attendance by David Adams, a current administrator with Winn/Trinity Community Health Centers, with the aid of grant money, Deano established the first Winn Community Health Center clinic in a small building, with two Physician’s Assistants, one medical doctor, one nurse and the administrator. Plans were in place in 2010 to purchase the building which had housed the old McElwee Clinic and increase the staff to serve more patients. The larger facility was opened by 2012 and staff increased.
In the next two years, a grant was obtained to fund the opening of an FHQC in Grant Parish, and Winn Community Health Center opened a clinic in Colfax in 2014. That is also the year David Adams began working with WCHC. In 2016, another clinic was opened in Ringgold to serve citizens of Bienville Parish. At that point, the name of Trinity Community Health Centers was adopted, and by 2017, two more clinics were opened, another for Grant Parish located in Pollock, and one for Lincoln Parish in Ruston. In the last three years, two more facilities have been opened under the auspices of Trinity Community Health Centers, one in Avoyelles Parish in 2019 and one in Rapides Parish in 2021.
In the meantime, schools became a focus of the WCHC, and school clinics were developed in Winn, Grant and Rapides, with clinics now existing in 36 schools.
The organization has gone from 5 employees in 2009 to 275 employees today, with a current annual budget of $30,000,000, including an $18,000,000 payroll. This year, the clinics are on track to reach 140,000 total patient visits. Anyone in the surrounding communities can receive health care in these clinics, regardless of insurance coverage, whether private, Medicaid or Medicare, or none at all, who are charged on a sliding scale based on their income. Dental care, vision care and pharmacy services are also available to patients of the clinics.
Mayor George Moss read aloud the formal proclamation made by the City in Mr. Thornton’s honor , acknowledging and celebrating his distinguished career in direct service to the City as Marshall and Mayor for almost 27 years, the establishment of the local Winn Community Health Center and Trinity Community Health Centers, as well as his service within the political system as the chairman of Winn Parish’s Democratic Executive Committee for many years and induction into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame in 2020, and his commitment to the prosperity of Winnfield.
Mr. Thornton appeared surprised—and touched—by the tribute to his hard work to improve conditions in Winnfield and the surrounding parishes. His deep love of this community, his family, friends and neighbors, is apparent in his remarks: “I was blessed to grow up here,” he said, “and I really can’t imagine my life if I had moved away to live somewhere else after I was grown.” He still has plans to grow the local clinic facility, and WCHC bought the lots on West Lafayette Street across from the clinic’s current location, previously owned by the Bozeman family, to expand the clinic and get the entire operation, currently in 5 buildings, consolidated into one large building still in the same general location. His continued commitment to the betterment of this community and the surrounding areas is clear in his enthusiasm as he discusses plans for the future. Deano Thornton, a mainstay of this community for many years now, is far from finished with his endeavor to improve Winnfield, Winn Parish, and our neighboring rural parishes.
At the conclusion of the program, Winnfield Rotary Club presented its Certificate of Appreciation to Mr. Thornton, echoing the gratitude and indebtedness to him expressed in the City’s Proclamation for all he has done for our community over the last 40+ years, and the meeting was adjourned as always with the Rotary motto, “Service above self!”