Amherst Magazine

Robert J. Thompson '58

Robert J. Thompson '58 died July 4, 2010.
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Bob Thompson '58 (1)

“Bobby” Thompson lived his life plumb and true. From his time at Amherst through his time in Europe and then back home working with the people of his hometown, Bethlehem, Pa., Bob followed core values that steered his work and his impact on others. As one of his neighbors remembered, “Bob undoubtedly earned his wings during this lifetime!”

Because Bob graduated a year after our class (due to a year’s sabbatical in Europe), partly because he never attended a class reunion until our 50th, and partly because of his inherent modesty and restraint (except on the wrestling mat), Bob has remained a bit of a mystery to us.  But to his friends at Amherst and the people he touched in his school and social work in Bethlehem, he was “Bobby,” and he was a special person. 

Howard Wolf, who was friendly with Bobby when they both lived in Valentine during 1958-59, writes, “He was one of the most decent people I've ever known – sincere, compassionate and sensitive to the lives of others.”

Mick Schaenen recalls, “Bobby was my freshman-year hallmate in Stearns.  He was a very intense, very driven young man, and whether the subject was wrestling, at which he excelled, or politics, that intensity was always present.”

"Bobby personified the words 'yes we can' long before the politics of today,” writes Moe Wolff. “Bobby first reached out a hand to help me learn how to wrestle much better, and to take me and other members of the Amherst wrestling team to a higher level. I will always remember his quick smile, his warmth and his very positive attitude to all things. Bob was both an optimist and realist at the same time. He personified encouragement and exuded a 'let's go all out' optimism. He convinced us we could be better than we were.”

Bob Thompson '58 (4)
Bob and George Lear in Europe, circa 1961

Bob died July 4, 2010, in the pond at his beloved farm and summer home near Wellsboro, Pa. Although he was a strong, life-long swimmer, the health issues he had endured over the past seven years most likely rendered him too weak to be able to swim to safety, perhaps the result of a stroke, his wife, Nadine, thinks.

Bob was born June 30, 1936, in New York City.  He entered Amherst from Bethlehem’s Liberty High School. He joined Theta Delt, but as he wrote in our 40th reunion book, he dropped out of the fraternity after being rushing chairman, “being that close to the ‘over-the-quota’ charade [made] me know I had to get out.”  Bob took a third-year sabbatical to travel and study in Denmark, returning to graduate in 1959.

Bob returned to Europe for three more years, including studies at the universities of Vienna (’61) and Munich (’63).  During the third year, he was joined by his close friend and classmate, George Lear, and introduced George to his future wife, Trude.  Bob became a high school English and German teacher in his hometown, Bethlehem, from 1963 to 1971, when he switched to social work. He obtained a masters in social services at Bryn Mawr in 1981.

Bob Thompson '58 (3)
Bob in Thessalonki, Greece's second
largest city, 2006

Bob deeply regretted that, in the last few years, his weakened condition had forced him to forego the community work to which he had devoted so much energy and enthusiasm. His list of activities, accomplishments, and awards is far too great to enumerate, ranging from global and citywide efforts to small initiatives that were noticed mainly by those whose lives were touched.

In his own words, Bob knew that “we had serious... issues right here in Bethlehem.” As counselor and later director of Family & Counseling Services of the Lehigh Valley, he changed lives.  “Bob was an inspiration and mentor to countless people,” wrote a friend.  Another noted, “… [Bob had] a compassion for the poor among us, the energy to see a wrong and to try to make it right, a conviction that dialogue will create a common ground, and a deep love for his Bethlehem community.

As a teacher, Bob influenced hundreds of young minds.  “He brought Shakespeare and other great writers to life for me.  He also brought American citizenship to life through his tireless and good-humored teaching style, both in class and in the community,” wrote Michael Sell (‘93), Easthampton, Mass., who added, “I was not surprised to learn only recently that Bob was a graduate of my alma mater Amherst College.”

Another former student noted, “You never know when you will meet someone who will change your life forever. Bob was my teacher at Liberty High School in the early sixties. He was so aware and I so unaware of my surroundings and the people that filled them.”

Bob also served many years on the local school board, where he was instrumental in establishing a 60-hour community service graduation requirement for the high schools, receiving national attention. He helped students discover through direct experience (choosing from 118 participating agencies or writing their own specifications) what the human needs are in the community and what efforts it takes to meet those needs.

A portrait of Bob’s very full life would not be complete without further reference to George Lear, who took his own life in 1974.  As Mick Schaenen notes, “George’s untimely death had a devastating effect on Bob; the two of them had shared a life-changing year together in Munich, and I believe that George’s political views were a powerful determinant of Bob’s future life choices.” 

Bob’s comments in George’s In Memory piece published in our 50th reunion book revealed how much George meant to him: “Over the years I have tended to keep too much of this locked in the cupboard – our of reach but not safely out of reach.”  In our 40th reunion book, Bob explained some of his deep concerns about Amherst and what the college taught (or did not teach) us – for Mick Schaenen, “ It represented a sad ‘road map’ of the road he had traveled over the years.” And so it was quite remarkable that Bob and his wife joined us for the 50th reunion.

Bob Thompson '58 (2)
Nadine and Bob in Palatania, Greece, 2006

As Howard Wolf notes, “I think it was a healing experience for him, especially when he sang with a group at the memorial service.” And Mick Schaenen shared a similar thought: “When I think of him, I will always see him working his magic on the wrestling mat, and I will always hear his beautiful tenor singing voice.”

Tony Dominick, who says he did not know Bob at Amherst, “…. got to ‘know’ him at our reunion.  It was one of the bright moments…. We kindled at the several rehearsals that Lynn Truesdale and Ron Ohl organized for our ‘performance’ of Amherst songs.  I had conversations and some food with him and his delightful wife over those few days…. This was a sensitive and profound man.”

Bob’s own words sum up his true-to-the-core life. “I learned that the history of Bethlehem, and indeed of our nation, was a history of struggle... I can think of no other life I would rather have lived.” And, “Like Thoreau, I have other lives I’d like to live, but my attitude toward them isn’t as leisurely as it was when I dreamed at Amherst.” Earlier, he wrote, “In the area of fundamental values, vocation and life commitment, I sometimes feel like the luckiest man alive.”

Bobby Thompson did earn his wings here on earth.  As one of the people he counseled in Bethlehem wrote, “…. jahovah has gained another angel as we have lost a saint.”

– Allen Clark '58

 

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