He stood at head of class until the end
Thomas Walter Thompson 1938-2008
By Marty Clear, Times Correspondent
Published February 29, 2008
TAMPA - Fed up with the harsh Michigan winters, Tom Thompson loaded his family into the car in 1973 and headed south on Interstate 75, which wasn't yet completed.
The highway ended in Tampa, his son Robert Thompson said. "So that's where we ended up."
For the next 35 years, Mr. Thompson devoted himself tirelessly to Tampa students of all ages. He taught school during the day and volunteered to teach people in jail at night.
He taught even when leukemia sapped his strength and he couldn't walk unaided.
He died at home Feb. 13, surrounded by family. He was 69.
Mr. Thompson had grown up in a working-class family in Philadelphia. His father went from one factory job to another.
"He knew that wasn't the kind of life he wanted for himself," his son said. "And he saw education as his way out."
When he enrolled in Hope College in Michigan, he became the first person in his family to go to college. He started teaching grade school while he was still a student.
He met his wife, Jeanette, when both were performing in a community theater production in Michigan. They began their lives together there and have two daughters and a son. During his first teaching job, Mr. Thompson developed what would become his specialty as an educator.
"Wherever he went, he started remedial reading and language programs," his son said.
When the family came to Tampa, Mr. Thompson took a position as principal of Spencer Memorial Baptist School in Seminole Heights (now called Tampa Baptist Academy).
"It only went up to sixth grade, and there were about 200 students," his son said. "It was his vision to expand it to eighth grade, and he did that."
But he found he didn't like the administrative side of education.
"He ran a day care center," his son said. "But he didn't like doing that. It wasn't teaching."
He returned to the classroom once and for all, teaching at Oak Grove Middle School, then for more than 15 years at Hillsborough High School.
Mr. Thompson always had a fascination with the Titanicand shared that passion with his high school English students. Through the year, he would have them research and write about the ship, its passengers and its period in history. At year's end he would host Titanic parties in which students dressed as survivors.
A couple of nights a week, he went to a county jail, where he taught his favorite students. The inmates were still young enough that they could turn their lives around, and Mr. Thompson wanted to make sure they had a decent chance to do that.
"He kept in touch with a lot of his students for years after," Robert Thompson said. "He wanted to make sure they were living the way he had taught them they could."
He retired a few years ago but hated it. He immediately went back to teaching at Hillsborough Community College, where he taught reading and study skills.
Mr. Thompson had battled leukemia for the past couple of years. Then he developed pneumonia. He was dying and he knew it, but he kept teaching.
"He needed a walker," his son said. "My mother would drive him to HCC so he could save his energy for teaching."
He kept teaching until the end of January, just a couple of weeks before he died.
Besides his wife and his son, Mr. Thompson is survived by daughters Kristen Thompson-Norris and Kathy King and three grandchildren.