Dr. T, Jim Thompson, was my advisor in graduate school at Indiana State University. I met him a few years after a sudden heart attack almost cost him his life. He was only 36 at that time and was working on his Ph.D. with a young family at Michigan State. Since then, his whole attitude towards life has been one of gratefulness. Each day he wakes up appreciative of what he’s been able to experience and participate in.
Although he was the chair of the department, Dr. T was never intimidating. Even the lowliest undergraduates were comfortable approaching him with issues, in part because of his calm demeaner and witty humor.
There’s a story he told on himself which still makes me laugh to this day, and helps illustrate the nature of the man: Driving to Michigan one day, Dr. T let himself go a bit too fast. He was pulled over for speeding. When the officer asked him the typical question — “What’s the hurry?” — he replied with a straight face, “I am taking my mother-in-law back home, officer.” The officer smiled and said, “Good luck with that, just take it a little easy.”
He is a great friend to all he meets, whether in an elevator or a restaurant, a true well-wisher, always looking out for the interests of others. Moreover, while we often say of kind-hearted people that they can “see the good in everyone,” Dr. T goes further. He can see the best in everyone. He had hopes and dreams for the students he advised that went beyond what they could imagine for themselves.
Having been one of those fortunate students, I can also attest that he wasn’t merely the kind of starry-eyed optimist who makes you shake your head and think yeah, yeah, that’ll never happen. He recognized potential in us that we had yet to recognize, and he helped us to see it, and inspired us to fulfill it.
I also learned from him how to handle adversity with grace. Once, Dr. T was involved in a business deal that went south in a way that would make most people extremely upset and angry. His response was one of reflection: “I should have been more careful.”
Dr. T has remained an important person in my life through more than three decades that have passed since my grad school days. I still talk to him every couple of months and see him once or twice a year. In addition to being a loving father of his own two children and four grandchildren, he has played the role of my adopted American father and grandpa to my children, and his wife Jeanette is my daughter’s godmother.
Does this man have flaws? Well, surely he does — but in terms of how he relates to others, I can think of only one possible beef. Dr T. is so selfless in his unconditional devotion to his students, friends and family that he never accepts any credit when I try to tell him how much he has meant to me. Whenever I talk about the formative impact he’s had on my life, he’ll always respond with a modest, “Oh, I didn’t do much.”
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Dr. T, as my advisor, then my friend, and my role model rebuilt my confidence and courage that I lost during my undergraduate years. He led me to believe that I could pursue anything I wanted and succeed at it. That’s priceless!
In October 2014, I was able to express my gratitude publicly when I gifted my Distinguished Alumni Award from Indiana State to Dr. T at the ceremony. He was the one who deserved it. I experienced my greatest joy, however, after the ceremony at dinner, when Jeanette told me, “I am so glad that I came to your award ceremony because no one has ever recognized Jim in his 39 years of service to the university.” I was shocked and saddened by her comment, yet ever so blessed that I was the one to finally recognize him.
There is so much depth and breadth in the qualities that Dr. T passed on to me, the most important one being the absence of ego in his interactions with others. I’ve mentioned only a few of the things that I have been able to learn from him, and to quote Michelangelo’s motto, “I am still learning.”
I hope each of you can find a friend and mentor like Dr. T in your life — someone you can keep learning from, who can be your guiding light.