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Distinguished University Alumni Award 2010

Robert A'58 J'60 and Janet (Strom) A'56 C'60 Thornbloom

by Melissa Vélez-Luce C'2004

The North Park University Distinguished Alumni Award is given each year in recognition of alumni who have achieved significant accomplishments professionally and who have lived a life that resonant with the core values and mission of North Park University. This year, the award was presented to Robert and Janet Thornbloom, career missionaries to Congo. The Thornblooms were presented with their award at the Homecoming Reunion and Awards Breakfast on Saturday, October 2, 2010.

In the middle of his high school career at North Park Academy, Robert Thornbloom recalls returning to his birthplace of Congo along with his parents, some of the first missionaries based there. “North Park offered to arrange a syllabus for me to study via correspondence courses,” Bob recalls, “which meant sending courses in for grading via boat mail — a process that could take a minimum of three months before I saw the graded coursework returned to me.”

He made his way back to the United States in order to attend North Park Junior College before returning to Congo in 1963, this time as a mechanical engineer and a newlywed. Bob’s wife, Janet, a member of North Park’s first four-year graduating class, had recently received her education degree, and was new to the land of Congo and the native Nbgaka language.

For the next 44 years, the Thornblooms devoted their time and energy to the people of Congo. Bob focused on technical and rural development, including the design and building of several dams that have benefited agriculture and provided water to the hospital at Karawa. To this day, clean drinking water has been made available to numerous communities because of wells that were dug, and airstrips were built throughout Congo that still help in the transport of medicine and supplies to hospitals.

Janet poured her energy into women’s literacy and rural development. She offered courses on health and taught computer and accounting skills to the nationals working in the development office at Karawa. Her greatest pride and joy, though, was teaching local women to read and write. She recalls, “What I loved most was the look on their faces as these women made the connection that the word on the page was the same word they were speaking. They were reading!”

Keith Bakken C’85 G’2006, who together with wife Laurie (Elowson) Bakken C’84 served as short-term missionaries in Congo, says, “If not for Bob, the hospital in Karawa would not have had electricity. This affected the ability of the hospital to perform surgeries, sterilize instruments, and simply have light in the building. It was Bob’s innovation and ability to create a hydroelectric plant that resulted in the electricity and running water provided in that area.” Janet was a resource for the Bakkens as well; it was she who oversaw the short-term missionaries stationed in Congo at that time, and they recall her leadership with gratitude.

In 1994, Janet and Bob worked together with World Relief International to work with unaccompanied orphans fleeing into Congo during the Rwandan refugee crisis. During this time, they worked to reestablish connections between children who had been separated from their parents during the mass exodus, as well as orphans and lost children.

Despite their travels around the globe, the Thornblooms found a home at North Park. When accepting their award at the Homecoming Reunion and awards breakfast, Janet warmly said to the group, “Whether you are brand-new alumni or fortunate enough to be old alumni of North Park Academy, College, University, or Seminary, you are part of an extended family that cares. I thank those qualified professors who taught patiently through the years because they wanted to form the new generation in the best possible atmosphere and to make their lives ones of significance and service to all they met. North Park is our family — and that makes the Alumni Association our sisters and brothers.”

Robert and Janet Thornbloom