Home Editorials A Good Life: Bidding Farewell to Dr. Joseph Thompson (1965-2014)

A Good Life: Bidding Farewell to Dr. Joseph Thompson (1965-2014)

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joseph thompson

Past, present and future students lost a mentor on August 4, 2014. Several of his former students marked his death not only as a loss for themselves, but as a loss for the future. Thompson was 49 and had just secured tenure. He should have had decades more before him and thousands of students more to teach.

Future students, people who believe the magic of rhetoric has waned or is relegated to a golden age, will read a eulogy to Dr. Joseph Thompson, that maestro of philosophy, and think: What did I miss?

You missed a masterclass in oratory. After all, he never wrote a book on philosophy, he merely spoke volumes on it. He never pontificated from the pulpit, he only taught. We have many instructors in life, but few teachers. Rare is the man who teaches well; rarer still is the man whose lessons last a lifetime. Thompson was one of those shining few.

In many ways, Thompson gave a masterclass in life. He was the embodiment of joie de vivre: he tickled the ivories, traveled the globe, devoured Shakespeare, and taught chess. He enjoyed a good drink (a cognac or a glass of Crown Royal Reserve) and was an actor who gave Dante Alighieri and Cole Porter their do. He didn’t walk across campus, he swaggered; his jet-black hair slicked back and a pair of aviator sunglasses shading his eyes. And when he caught sight of a familiar fellow he was never stingy with his trademark grin.

The man could also talk. But, he was from New York and that was to be expected. “I just talk very fast and pack a lot in where other people might stop and hold and explain and wait and pause,” he said in an interview. “I manage to get in three sentences in the time when they would have still been completing the verb of their first sentence!”

Thompson was a passionate talker and was always at home in a discussion, lecture, or debate. He worked frequently with the UAF Socratic Society and gave public lectures on evolution, same-sex marriage, and philosophy. He even presented a miniature copy of the Bible to a certain visiting science lecturer named Richard Dawkins. It was given as a gag, of course.

He loved the written word as much as the spoken. He was a devotee of Shakespeare and declared – because that is what he did, he declared things – that the Riverside Shakespeare was a desert island necessity. “I would let go the rest of literature, philosophy, art, if I had to,” he said. “If I could just take one thing it would be that, and I would think myself adequately provided for.”

That is the Thompson to remember. The dynamic man who did not watch, but who did.

Toward the end, like many cancer sufferers, he became a thinner version of himself. He was still a dynamo, but a quieter one. The commonalities of life – like a post on Facebook – became heroic. He lost weight and his cheekbones became more pronounced. In one photo – after winning the 2014 Emil Usibelli Distinguished Teaching Award – his jet-black hair is gone, replaced by a short-brimmed fedora.

Joseph Thompson lived a good life. But every end, it is said, is also a beginning. While the man has departed, his legacy remains: an annual lecture series and a scholarship have been opened in his name. He may have departed to his desert island – complete with a copy of Shakespeare – but for those who knew him, and learned at the feet of a master of life, his impact will continue to be felt for years to come.

7 COMMENTS

  1. A very moving tribute, Jeremia. You have captured the man my husband was in a poignant way. A nice way to remember him. Thank you.

  2. Jeremia’s loving eulogy to Joseph has inspired me to share some of my earliest memories of Joseph. I have never done this before. Certainly not in writing. Perhaps because it was my birthday yesterday and I am missing Joseph even more than usual, or because I had an extra glass of cabernet, whatever it is I will share some very personal memories about my beloved husband from the time we first met. Joseph and I met at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where we were both pursuing our Ph. D’s (Joseph in Continental Philosophy and I on Slavic Literatures and Languages) through our mutual friends Joy Chen and Kevin Howard. Joseph was offering a summer astrology workshop in August 1995, and my friend Joy who had signed up for it, convinced me to register for this class. I did and that’s how I met Joseph. He was magnetic. He was charismatic. The workshop was absolutely phenomenal. I had a mild interest in astrology prior to this, but Joseph’s knowledge, presentation of the material, flair, humor, and personality made it to be one of the most memorable short classes that I had ever taken in my life. It was life changing, to say the least.

    Soon after Joseph and I got romantically involved, I realized that he was no ordinary graduate student/instructor. The man had following. Wherever that we went over campus, and the UIUC campus is rather large, the man was treated like celebrity. Young men–and sometimes young women–would flock to him and they seemed not to get enough of him. At coffee shops, movie theatres, restaurants, hallways, and libraries he was greeted and of course, he greeted back, by what seemed to me his fans. Later I learned that these were his undergraduate students: he was a graduate instructor and taught several sections every academic year. Young men in the teens and early twenties were drawn to him by his undeniable magnetic pull. At that time I thought how fitting it was, that he was pursuing his degree to be a philosophy professor. In all the depictions that I had seen of Socrates–the father of philosophers– he was surrounded by young disciples at the agora, discussing, debating, and engaging young minds. And every time I saw Joseph and his students/followers in animated discussion, I was reminded of those paintings. Already then I knew that Joseph was making and will continue to have an impact on people’s lives. He was no ordinary friend, or interesting instructor, he was a larger than life figure, the kind that leaves a lasting impression on the lives of people he interacts with.

    During our early days as lovers, we had little privacy and free time to ourselves. Joseph’s tiny bachelor pad on Illinois Street in Urbana was always full of fellow graduate students and undergrads. As grad students we were both poor, but notwithstanding, Joseph was very generous with all he had: time, resources, sharing of knowledge, and genuine friendship. Every guest who stopped by was welcomed warmly: there was always a pot of coffee–very strong coffee–brewing, at all hours of the day and night. And Joseph was also very generous with as he referred to it, “mescalite” (from Carlos Castaneda), the “ally,” the “herb of the shamans.” And his friends and fans were generous back. The atmosphere in that tiny apartment was exhilarating and exciting: everyone engaged in all sorts of heated discussion on topics ranging from Nietzsche, Aristotle, Rawls, Da Vinci, Shakespeare, the Pre-Raphaelites, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Cézanne, “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” “Twin Peaks,” and current politics. Nobody wanted to leave, the hours just went by. If Cinderella were among the guests, her carriage would have turned back into a pumpkin. And because of these daily gatherings, very soon we started a sort of communal kitchen. I would cook curry or someone would order pizza or Chinese food, and 8-10 of us would partake of our meals together. Those were crazy days. And fortunately, the height of the craziness lasted a semester or, because if not, neither Joseph nor I would have been able to write and defend our dissertations! Even when the “heyday” passed, while we didn’t continue those daily get-togethers, Joseph continued to have his entourage follow his around, but now more at Expresso Royale. This is how we spent the first three years of our lives together. Now it all seems like a dream, a beautiful dream. In January 1999 Joseph joined UAF when he was hired to teach four Philosophy courses. The rest is history.

    Joseph simply loved his students. They meant the world to him. He and I were deeply in love and remained so until the day he left this world, but even so his students were a great source of joy and happiness to him. He was a true philosopher in the sense of Socrates: no students, no master. I am deeply grateful to all those students, who over the years, reciprocated the love he had for them and in so many ways continue to honor his memory and legacy. Thank you for listening.

    • Thank you, Trina. Those memories are stunning and eye-opening and beautiful. I’m speechless. Thank you so much for sharing them.

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