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Remembering Jack Thompson

Mark C. Smith

On March 6, 2017, Midcoast Senior College lost a founder, a professor, and its biggest booster. I lost a friend. Jack Thompson was a man of many facets, many skills and many achievements.  He is a difficult man to capture in words. One of those words, however, would be “good.” Jack was a good man.

In 1999, Jack Thompson  and Nancy Wheeler were taking classes and teaching at Olli (Osher Lifelong  Learning Institute) in Portland.  Olli was the first senior college in Maine and was under the umbrella of the University of Southern Maine, an arrangement typical of senior colleges.

After discussions Jack and Nancy had with David Batty, Director of the Midcoast extension campus of the University of Maine Augusta, and Jack’s colleague from Olli, Rabbi Harry Sky, a decision was made to host an Open House in October 1999 to introduce plans to begin senior classes in the Brunswick/Bath area the following March, and to gauge interest. The planning group expected about 25 people, but over 80 showed up. More donuts and cider were sent for, and the meeting was repeated in three rooms. This incident forecast the continuous growth we have experienced since our founding, a growth that has regularly exceeded expectations.

The initial MSC term began in March of 2000, with six courses.  Jack, the first Chair of the Curriculum Committee, taught “Maine Experiences, Highlights and Lowlights.” The fact that this subject was outside Jack’s academic field (Russian History) was an early indication of his wide-ranging intellectual interests. Our most prolific professor, Jack would teach twenty-five classes in the first fifteen years of MSC. The following sample of his courses reflects Jack’s expansive interests and expertise: ‘Tsars, Peasants, Rebels, Russia’s Imperial Past;” ”FDR and the Transformation of America 1933-45”; “From 9/11 to Iraq’s Withdrawal: What Went Wrong”; “Espionage in Fact, Fiction and Film”; “Tudor Monarchs, Henry, Elizabeth and Other Rascals?” and “Eight Women Who Changed the World.”

Jack’s imprint on MSC can also be seen in two pivotal moments of our history.  The first was the initial Board retreat in 2004.  Held in Jack’s barn in Phippsburg, that retreat confirmed our mission and commitment to providing academic liberal arts courses.

David McKeith, long time Board member and participant in the retreat, speaks of Jack’s true belief in and commitment to the liberal arts. Jack’s vision was instrumental in the mission of Midcoast Senior College.  The second pivotal moment  was the decision to leave the umbrella of University of Maine– Augusta and become an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.  Jack was a member of the committee formed in 2010 to examine what administrative and fiscal structure would best serve MCS as we continued to grow. He and I spent an afternoon at Belfast’s senior college to take a close look at how they were functioning as an independent  501(c)3.  That visit convinced Jack that independence and non-profit status was the way to go. He became a strong and important advocate for that direction and eventual decision.

In discussing Jack, Howard Whitcomb notes his presence.  Jack was a big man, with a big intellect and a big presence in every respect of that word.  He was also someone who took a genuine interest in whomever he was talking with or interviewing.  He had the knack of making you feel that you were the complete focus of his interest.

Another long time friend, Manny Sargent, said when he recalls Jack, the word stoic comes to mind.  Those of us who know Jack well or just saw him at the annual luncheon, can attest to how stoically Jack dealt with the infirmities he experienced in recent years.

L to R: Dorothy Bell, Nancy Wheeler, Mark Smith, and Jack Thompson inaugurating the Wheeler-Thompson Award

I said at the start of this piece, that when Jack died, I lost a friend.  I know I speak for many others in this regard.  I met Jack through senior college, but in recent years we became friendly on a personal level.  Jack and I had a lot in common. We both graduated from small western Massachusetts liberal arts colleges (Amherst and Williams) whose athletic teams wear purple.  We both grew up playing pond hockey.  One little know fact from Jack’s past is that he, along with Manny Sargent and others, formed Amherst College’s first ice hockey team. In that first year, probably a similar level with my intramural hockey games at Williams many years later.  Jack and I shared an interest in all sports.  We both grew up NY football Giants fans. Jack was a fellow Red Sox fan and, on occasion, we attended Sea Dog games together. One of his sales pitches to get others to go was to note that parking was easy with a handicapped ticket.

Jack and I also had an interest in Russia in common.  It was, of course, his major field of study and he made many trips to Russia and lived for two years in Moscow.  My visits were briefer, but in doing some consulting work in Chelyabinsk, and in a subsequent trip to Lomonosov, I grew to admire the Russian people and enjoyed conversations with Jack about our respective time in Russia.

A final connection for me with Jack was Public Education.  I had a forty-year career as a teacher, principal and superintendent in public schools. Jack was a college professor, but also had a keen interest in and concern for public schools.  Not well known is the work Jack did in Indiana to improve history curricula in the state’s High Schools.  Part of that effort included chairing a Ford Foundation-funded statewide non-western studies program. In addition to his Russian History books, Jack co-authored a world history textbook for secondary school students.  For many years here in Maine, Jack visited high schools to give talks on Russia to interested classes.  Indeed, the day Jack and I went to Belfast, I met him in Camden where he had been a guest “teacher” at Camden Hills High School.  Last fall, before he left for Florida, Jack was working on a course he would team-teach on American Public Education, Its History and Current Challenges.

Jack had a keen interest in methods of teaching and learning, as all of us who participated in his small groups can attest.

As had been noted elsewhere, Jack lived in the oldest brick house in Maine on the west bank of the Kennebec.  He and Anne had five children and eleven grand-children. Jack was a caring and proud father and grandfather who could tell you what each was doing at the moment and enjoyed conversations that wandered in that direction.

Jack Thompson was a founder of MSC and his impact on our growth was substantial. In addition to his scholarship, he was a family man, a good man, and a good friend.  He will be missed.

Mark Smith is a long-time contributor to MSC, a past president of the organization and a creator of the Wheeler-Thompson Founders’ Award.  Click here to learn more about the award.