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.