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Like many at the University, Tom Thompson first came to McGill as an employee. The difference between Thompson and many staffers, however, was that the year was 1952 and he was just 14 years old.
A Grade 9 student at the High School of Montreal on University St. (now F.A.C.E. High School), the young Thompson was contacted by his principal, who said McGill was looking for someone to work as the weekend porter at the Douglas Hall residence. Thompson jumped at the chance. "On top of being paid 75 cents an hour, I got three meals a day," he said, laughing. "At first I thought it was a great bonus, but it didn't take long before those meals became pretty predictable."
The bonus turned out to be McGill's, as, 56 years later, Thompson is one of the University's living icons – a real-life gentleman and tireless fundraiser, who has spent more than half his life trying to make the school he loves a better place. Not surprisingly, on May 21, the McGill Alumni Association will recognize Thompson as he receives its Award of Merit for his lifetime contribution of exceptional leadership and service to the University.
More than just a first job, Thompson's two-year stint as weekend porter helped set his path in life. "I was fascinated because the students came from all over the world," he recalled. "And when I wasn't answering phones, delivering mail or escorting lady visitors to the men's sitting room, I spent all the long boring hours reading the books they left behind – biology, math, Gray's Anatomy. It introduced me to the fact that there was a lot more out there – a whole world to learn about."
And where better to learn than McGill? Thompson earned his BSc in physical education in 1958, followed by a teaching diploma. After four years teaching high school phys. ed., Thompson was re-hired by his old employer in 1963 to work in the Department of Athletics. "They probably just needed someone at the last minute," Thompson said, with characteristic self-effacement.
As Director of Physical Education, Thompson proved to be more than a 11th-hour hire. In short notice, he revamped the entire student sports program, including adding karate, scuba diving and the first weight room. He got rid of boxing because he feared for students' safety. "The last person to hit the heavy bag was [heavyweight champion] Joe Louis, who was in town to promote the Golden Gloves tournament," Thompson said. "I shook his hand and my hand just disappeared."
Thompson oversaw a physical education program that required all first-year students to participate in a certain number of individual sports or pay a fine at year's end. Before his arrival, about 60 per cent of students opted to pay the fine. "Being naïve, I said, 'I'm not going to let that happen again' and I started calling up students individually and said 'When do you want a class? Saturday morning? OK, it'll be Saturday morning.' "
The hands-on approach worked, as less then four per cent of students paid the fine that year. "Of course, I don't know how the administration felt losing that source of revenue," Thompson said with a laugh.
Thompson never forgot the lessons he learned about the power of the personal approach and those lessons served him, and the University, well when he moved to Development and Alumni Relations in the 1970s.
Having served as everything from Director of Alumni Relations to Deputy Director of Development and Director of Campaign Planning over the last three decades, Thompson has been an integral part of the most significant fundraising campaigns in school history. And while Thompson has seen campaigns change in scope and focus over his career, he believes their success has been largely due to one common trait: the personal touch. "Being able to bring the message of McGill to people in person is invaluable," he said. "I think it is important to build moral support for the University which, in turn, leads to financial support."
Thompson also understands that given the pace of today's I-need-it-yesterday world, forging these types of links can be seen as somewhat old school. "No, it isn't easy," he said. "We sometimes build relationships over the course of 20 or more years. But in the end, our donors are committed to investing in the future of students and young researchers and the future of McGill."
Asked how he maintains his enthusiasm after so many years (even though he "retired" last year, Thompson still works on campaign-related projects), Thompson suggests his joy comes not from looking at past accomplishments, but in keeping his gaze fixed firmly on the future.
"Whatever success we are enjoying today must be attributed in some part to the contributions made by people five, 10 and 15 years ago. It's only now finding its right point of expression," he said. "What we are doing today – to build our relationships and fulfill our contacts – will determine what the University will be like years from now. We have the ability to help move McGill further along this path of exceptional achievement."