Mark Wayne Thornton, a former Fort Worth resident who dedicated much of his life to helping people experiencing homelessness, died Saturday at the age of 53.
Thornton, known in the community and by friends as Otis, was diagnosed with a form of brain cancer in January.
Thornton became the executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition in 2015 and was the first director of the Directions Home, Fort Worth’s first 10-year plan to make homelessness rare, short-term and nonrecurring by 2018.
Thornton was dedicated to helping those less fortunate than him, his friends said, and he inspired countless others to spread that same compassion.
“Otis changed the way our community addressed homelessness and his impact is still felt today,” the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition said on Facebook. “We hold his family in our thoughts and prayers and will always be grateful for the way he changed Fort Worth and Tarrant County.”
Thornton leaves behind his wife, Amylyn Crawford, and her two daughters. They lived in eastern Tennessee, where Crawford is a family medicine specialist and Thornton was the executive director of the Branch House Family Center, an advocacy and social justice group supporting survivors of domestic violence.
“I know I might be a little bit biased,” Crawford said, “But Otis was one of the most amazing humans on the planet.”
Crawford met Thornton in 1991 when they both worked with the Appalachia Service Project, a program which repairs homes and addresses substandard housing in Central Appalachia. They crushed on each other all summer, she said, and started dating. He was “so cool,” she remembers, with his long hair and talk of about peace and justice for all people.
The two broke up in their 20s, but rekindled their relationship when they ran a half marathon with a group of friends in 2016. He loved her daughters, she said, often referring to himself as their “bonus parent.”
Many of Thornton’s friends highlighted his wit and wicked sense of humor. He was always ready with either a clever pun or a “dad joke,” Crawford said.
He loved to travel, his friend Ken Crawford — of no relation to Amylyn Crawford — said. Thornton and his wife backpacked in Denali for about a week when they were in their 20s and had a close brush with a family of grizzlies. He climbed Kilimanjaro, rafted on the Nile River and went on a safari in Zanzibar.
In everyday life, he was a foodie, Ken Crawford said, and followed the latest food trends reported on in the Star-Telegram. He loved Christmas music, coffee and bringing people together — he was “always able to make the table bigger,” said Ken Crawford, who was Thornton’s fraternity brother at Texas Tech University in the late ‘80s. Ken Crawford is now the senior pastor at Central Christian Church of Dallas, Texas.
“He is my brother, closer and more deeply than anybody else,” Ken Crawford said. “It’s heart wrenching. You have those images of a group of friends sitting on the dock or their porch in their 80s, watching their grandkids and telling stories. And that’s the dream that is not going to be realized. But he will be there every time we do that or go to one of those places. He will be a significant presence in our lives.”
Social justice work
Mike Cline was also in the same fraternity as Thornton at Texas Tech University. While Cline did not keep up with most people he went to school with, Thornton was a close friend all his life and shaped the trajectory of Cline’s career.
Thornton was one of the inspirations behind the homeless program Cline started in San Antonio in 2000. At the time, the program mostly served breakfast. Now, Corazon San Antonio provides over 30,000 hot meals per year to those experiencing homelessness in downtown San Antonio.
“It’s kind of hard to sum up a person’s life,” Cline said. “He touched so many people.”
One of those people is Alex Branch, senior director of marketing and communications at UNT Health Science Center. When Branch was a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he spoke with Thornton often as he reported on homelessness in Fort Worth. As the director of homelessness programs in the area, Thornton urged Branch to be empathetic and avoid stereotypes about those living without a home.
“He definitely really cared about these people; he wasn’t just trying to meet goals,” Branch said. “He wasn’t a guy to sit in his office a lot — he was out there, he got to know people in the homeless community.”
Thornton’s opinions were not always the most popular, but he was not afraid to advocate for what he knew was right, Amylyn Crawford said. He was known as a fighter for social justice, especially as he pushed for fair housing and programs for the homeless in Fort Worth.
In a column published in the Star-Telegram in 2017, Thornton shed light on youth experiencing homelessness in the community.
In 2017, he told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board that Tarrant County needed to do more to help those who do not have homes. He wanted to reorganize and streamline the systems people had to go through to receive housing help. He urged local aid organizations to say yes more, as opposed to telling people they did not have the resources to help.
Thornton respected all people and their homes, Ken Crawford said, whether that person was living next door or in a tent near the highway.
“He was not doing things for people but with people,” Ken Crawford said. “And he did not assume that just because we have cars and houses and paychecks that we know what’s best for their life.”
Thornton was diagnosed with glioblastoma on Jan. 8. He and Amylyn Crawford created a CaringBridge blog to keep people updated on his condition. On Jan. 10, Thornton posted to a blog page about his diagnosis, writing that he, “Learned on 1/8/21 that I have a brain tumor. (Brain cancer seems somehow apropos of a goodbye gift from 2020, no?) It appears to be about the size of a ping-pong ball-flattened into the shape of the island of Oahu.”
On Saturday, Amylyn Crawford posted on the CaringBridge blog to let people know Thornton had died. He was “surrounded by people who loved him deadly, and with Christmas music in the background,” she wrote.
“There were lots of tears before and more after, but there was also laughter as someone- Otis- still had to get the last word in, and breathe a few more random breaths when we thought he had passed to the other side,” she wrote. “Never one to do things the easy way.....”
A service will be held at 4:30 p.m. Friday at Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church in Kingsport, Tennessee. Masks are required for those attending in person. The service will be live streamed, Amylyn Crawford said, and the link to watch will be available later this week.
A gathering of some kind will be held in North Texas in the future, she said. In lieu of flowers, the family asked for people to donate “to an organization that makes this world a better place.”