Thornton Stanley always wanted to be a builder.
It took some time for a black man in 1960s Alabama to establish himself in a business dominated by white-owned companies, but through hard work and determination, he made his dream come true and then some.
Stanley, founder of Huntsville’s Stanley Contruction Co., was inducted Jan. 10 into the Associated General Contractors of Alabama’s Construction Hall of Fame, a legend among his peers.
Even today, at age 81, he is still involved in the company, advising his children as they run the day-to-day operations. And he is proud, but humble when talking about his accomplishments.
“I didn’t set out to be a legend. I wanted to enjoy the work, build a legacy for my family and to create jobs for as many people as I could,” Stanley said.
He truly accomplished those goals. Founded in 1961 as a landscaping company, Stanley Construction does not only road work, but all manner of construction work, and employs about 50 people.
In 2001, Stanley was recognized by President George W. Bush as the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Person of the Year. In 2017, Stanley Construction was recognized by the Associated General Contractors for its design and construction of retention ponds at Bragg Farms in Taft, Tennessee, then the largest irrigation reservoir in the Southeast.
Like so many men of his generation, Stanley learned hard work the hard way. It was especially hard for a black man in the segregated South.
“It was definitely difficult, but I was no stranger to hard work or racist attitudes,” Stanley said. “Before college, I picked cotton, helped my father in his grocery store, and did other odd jobs to make money.
“To get to Alabama A&M, my high school ag teacher, Mr. Nance, recommended me for a $25 Sears Roebuck scholarship, and I put the rest of my tuition together by milking cows, doing yards for faculty members, being in ROTC and just working hard. So, for me to start a business in 1961, I already knew life was hard for a black man. I just kept pushing.”
A native of Leighton in northwest Alabama, Stanley entered Alabama A&M University at the age of 16, graduating in 1957 at the age of 20. His wife of nearly 58 years, Mary Elizabeth Bates Stanley, also of Leighton, graduated from Alabama A&M in 1958, then went on to get a master’s degree in counseling from Atlanta University in the 60s and a Ph.D in the 70s from Peabody College for Teachers, now a part of Vanderbilt University.
Stanley built his reputation for quality work by designing and installing residential landscapes, using his training as “ag man” from Alabama A&M.
“I was willing to go on the slippery slopes of Monte Sano, and thus I was able to carve out a niche getting jobs that others did not want to do. But my business dream was to be a road builder,” he said.
Right after college, before starting his own business, he had learned the road construction trade working for Stacy Construction Co., a black-owned road builder out of Guntersville.
After he started his own company in 1961, having built a reputation for excellent work as a landscaper, he branched out into driveways, concrete work and paving, then eventually full sitework contracting.
As an Alabama A&M graduate and huge fan of the Bulldogs sports teams, Stanley’s pride and joy is the site work his company did on A&M’s Louis Crews Stadium in the mid-90s. He’s also proud of the Bragg Farms irrigation project, which was designed by his youngest son, Algernon.
“Honestly, I am proud of every job, because as I tell my people, you must do the work, finish every job and build relationships that help you to get repeat work,” Stanley said.
His proudest legacy, however, is his children.
His oldest daughter, Karen Stanley, recently moved back to Huntsville after several years working as a chemical engineer and financial analyst in the corporate world, to be the family company’s vice president of finance. She’s earned degrees from Vanderbilt University, MIT and Harvard.
His second daughter, Deidre, is executive vice president, general counsel and secretary of Thomson Reuters, with degrees from Duke University, the London School of Economics and Harvard.
“I am super proud of the work she does with corporate strategy and managing over 100 lawyers across the globe,” Stanley said.
His third child, Thornton Stanley Jr., is Stanley Construction’s executive vice president of operations, having joined the company after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical and biomedical engineering from Vanderbilt University.
“I have been grooming him since boyhood, when I took him on job sites, taught him to run the roller and every other piece of equipment we have,” Stanley Sr. said.
His youngest son, Algernon Stanley Sr., is the family company’s vice president of project management, having earned his engineering degree from Auburn University and a master’s in construction management from the University of Texas at Austin.
Stanley’s niece Wanda, daughter of his late brother Henry, is a civil engineer with the company with a degree from the University of Alabama.
“My kids can hold their own in any company, and I am just thankful some of them choose to be in the family business, which I never pushed on them, I just let them know it was an option,” Stanley said.
Stanley’s advice to young people preparing for careers today? Have a curious mind and an unstoppable work ethic.
“No matter your career choice, I encourage young people to do well in school, try to get exposure to the field of your interest through job shadowing, internships or part-time work,” Stanley said. “When I first went to Guntersville, I told Mr. Stacy I would work for free for a few days to show him what I could do, and then he could decide if I would be an asset to his operation.”
Undoubtedly, Stanley proved himself an asset, not just to his first employer, but to generations of Alabamians to whom he provided jobs, a high standard of ethics and workmanship, and a wonderful example.
Haskins writes about points of pride statewide. Email your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet them to @Shelly_Haskins using #AlabamaProud