SVSU pioneer says goodbye

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Merry Jo Brandimore had yet to meet Dick Thompson when she applied for a position at Saginaw Valley State College in August 1983.

It did not take long into her interview with Thompson that Brandimore had made a new friend, one whom she ultimately would replace as dean of students.

“We actually had a lot of laughs during the interview,” Brandimore recalls. “I felt like I knew him my whole life just meeting him for the first time at that interview.”

Brandimore and Thompson went on to have a friendship that spanned several decades as the university grew into what it is today. But it wouldn’t just be Brandimore’s life that Thompson touched along the way, but the lives of hundreds of thousands of other faculty members, students and community members.

Thompson, who last served as university ombudsman during his decades-spanning career, retired Aug. 4 after spending the better part of the last 47 years as one of the most influential individuals at SVSU.

Originally hired as an admissions representative in 1970, Thompson, now 75, moved from being a high school teacher and coach to the university environment. Over the next five decades, he worked a multitude of jobs in a variety of offices that included assistant registrar, registrar, director of admissions and student services, dean of student affairs, athletic director and university ombudsmen. He also spent a short time as the assistant basketball coach and was the advisor to the Student Association (originally Student Government) for much of its existence.

He worked many of these positions all at the same time, even while some encompassed a far greater spectrum of duties than today. Throughout all of the roles Thompson served in, one thing remained constant. He wanted to work with students.

“I thought I could affect people’s lives more out of the classroom than in the classroom,” Thompson said. “I get a high on being with students. I still remember the three or four people who made a difference in my life, and I think that’s what I was hoping to do for others.”

Current SVSU President Donald Bachand applauded Thompson on his ability to influence any student from any background, whether the student appeared to be on the path to success or not.

“The challenges kind of charged him up,” Bachand said. “The bigger the challenge the student had, the harder he was going to work and the bigger the advocacy he was going to provide.”

Along the way, however, Thompson influenced far more than just students. Two particular non-students, Brandimore and Gene Hamilton built close friendships with Thompson that spanned extensive careers and into retirement.

“He’s been a constant in my life, no matter what my responsibilities were and what his were,” Brandimore said. “I’ve always felt like I could check in with him, and he’s been a great confidant and someone who I could count on to be honest with me and straighten me out when necessary.”

Brandimore also noted the qualities that make Thompson such an attractive individual for others to get to know and develop friendships with.

“You know you’re going to get the same guy no matter what the issue may be,” she said. “He’s a person with a very strong personal foundation. Dick also has tremendous humility. He’s ‘one of the gang.’ Never would anyone get the impression that Dick thinks of himself as better than or above anyone else. He is an incredibly humble individual.”

Upon arriving at SVSU, Thompson continued his friendship with a familiar face in Hamilton, another administrator who has left a significant mark on the university.

The two had originally met at St. Paul Catholic High School in Owosso, Thompson’s alma mater, where Thompson was hired to teach, coach baseball and be an assistant coach for both football and basketball. When they met, Hamilton was the head basketball coach and Thompson served under him. Later, Hamilton also coached the football team with Thompson as an assistant. Thompson later served as head basketball coach when Hamilton made the transition to SVSU.

The friendship the two built on the field and on the court continued for decades as they both joined the university’s staff. The duo also returned to the basketball court for a short time when Hamilton served as head coach and Thompson as his assistant.

The two have been there for some of each other’s greatest life accomplishments, including the birth of children, along with their toughest of situations.

“We were like family,” Hamilton said. “We did everything with the Thompsons. We have a very close personal friendship and, really, an interdependency.”

Like others, Hamilton commended his close friend for the type of person he is and how hard he works at what he does.

“He’s one of the most compassionate and understanding people who’ve ever been born,” Hamilton said. “To go along with that, he’s got a tremendous sense of humor that he tries to work in with everything. That’s why he’s so perfect at what he does.”

When Thompson arrived as admissions representative, he took on the daunting task of recruiting students to a then-college that featured two academic buildings and a series of trailers for its facilities.

“When I came here, I believed that I was going to be part of something that’s relatively new and challenging,” Thompson said. “With that in mind, I did what an admissions representative does, believe in what your product is and sell it. You had to be a bit of a dreamer and a believer at the same time.”

Thompson recalls standing in Wickes Hall with perspective students and parents and looking out into fields where he had placed signs describing the buildings that were soon to be built there.

It was that kind of vision that brought students to the college, first titled Saginaw Valley College, then Saginaw Valley State College and finally Saginaw Valley State University during the early years.

Over time, the dream that Thompson and others had became a reality.

“I’m awfully proud, blessed and grateful to be part of a new, developing college to where it is today,” Thompson said. “What I’m most proud of is the students that I watched move on to bigger and better things and success in life, especially those who perhaps made a few poor decisions prior to those successes happening.”

Thompson originally retired in 2008, but after a short amount of time, realized he wasn’t as ready to leave SVSU as he originally thought. The Thompson Student Activities Room (TSAR) was named after Thompson in memory of the illustrious career that appeared to be coming to an end.

But, during his retirement, Thompson sat down with then-President Eric Gilbertson, who told Thompson that his replacement as ombudsmen was leaving.

“I went home thinking about it and felt that I’d like to go back, and the rest is history,” he said.

Thompson and Gilbertson shared a long tenure as colleagues, but also as friends. First meeting in 1989 when Gilbertson began his presidency, Gilbertson recalls Thompson’s kindness toward him as he was learning about his new university.

“He had, even then, been a long-time Cardinal and tolerated the naïve questioning of a new president,” Gilbertson said. “It’s impossible to work with Dick and not become friends. He’s just a big softie, he wears his heart on his sleeve and cares deeply about everyone around him, especially students.”

Despite being back in retirement, Thompson is still on the go almost all the time. He’s spent time up north on Black Lake in Onaway, as well as at a hunting camp in Oscoda. He’s also vacationed in Florida in a house his family rents near where Hamilton’s family rents a home as well, along with spending time with other family members and friends.

Even as Thompson’s occupational role at SVSU comes to an end, he still has high hopes for the university’s future.

“Going forward, I would hope that every year, the university would get just a little better at everything that it does and stands for,” Thompson said.

As far as the ombudsmen role is concerned, those duties have been given to Sidney Childs, associate provost for student affairs and dean of students.

“It’s easier to do these things when you enjoy what you’re doing,” Thompson said. “When it’s all said and done, you look back, and you feel blessed that you made contributions to someone else that caused them to move on a succeed in life.”

Bachand stressed that Thompson, who worked under all four presidents in SVSU’s history, went beyond just the impact he made on certain offices and certain students, but that he influenced the entire attitude of the university.

“He helped to create this whole culture we have of caring for one another and caring for our students and being polite and kind to one another,” Bachand said. “He’s been a big part of that.”

Gilbertson agreed.

“He was key to developing an institutional culture that has placed students first,” he said. “Other institutions claim they do that but most don’t. SVSU does, and that culture began with Dick and that small band of others.”