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Richard Thompson served Transylvania as teacher and dean of students

Richard ThompsonRichard Thompson retired in May after a 31-year Transylvania career that blended teaching, service, and administration. It’s a challenging path for a professor to take, but looking back, he says he wouldn’t change a thing.

When Thompson was hired to teach sociology at Transylvania in 1977, his warm personality and his subject matter drew students to him.

“I was a sort of informal counselor,” he said. “Students gravitated to me to talk about all sorts of things. When you teach deviant behavior, students think they can tell you anything, and they do.”

It was a natural fit for Thompson to serve as interim dean of students in 1983. He was already working on the issue of student retention at Transy, and was instrumental in the adoption of the University 1111 program, an academic skills course designed to extend the orientation process for first-year students. At the end of that year, he returned to the classroom, but in 1987, he answered a call from President Charles L. Shearer that brought him back to the dean’s office where he served for 10 years before once again returning to teaching.

“I had been talking about stepping down from that position when a sociology faculty member retired, so the planets lined up just right and I chose to go back to teaching,” Thompson said. That was 11 years ago.

His experience working as a member of the faculty and the administration gave Thompson a rare perspective.

“There were drawbacks academically because I was in and out of the classroom, which interupted my research,” he said, “but I really wouldn’t change anything because I’ve learned so much, I’ve gotten to do so many things.”

Working in administration, for instance, brought Thompson a new understanding of every aspect of the University and the people who keep it running.

“I have a much greater appreciation for every person on this campus than I think I would have if I’d been faculty only,” he said.

Thompson was also an advocate for students, and as dean, earned a reputation for his caring nature and positive outlook.

“Richard always handled whatever came his way in a professional way, and he maintained his sense of humor,” Shearer said. These qualities directly benefited the students with whom he worked. Interestingly, Thompson served as dean when his daughter, Shera Thompson Smith ’96, and future son-in-law Robert Wayne Smith ’92, were Transy students.

“When I was a first-year student, he was a great help to me as I struggled with homesickness” said Laura Weathersby ’96. “He listened and offered advice. I appreciated his kindness.”

Whether serving as a member of the faculty or the administration, Thompson’s availability to his students and dedication to the University were his hallmarks.

“His students knew that he was truly committed to their learning,” Shearer said. “In his office or walking across Haupt Plaza, Richard was so approachable and his students never hesitated to talk with him because they knew that he was sincerely interested in their welfare.”

This caring attitude was part of what enabled Thompson to navigate his way from dean’s office to classroom and back without losing touch with his goals as an educator.

“He is the epitome of what getting a liberal arts degree is all about,” said Candy Thiele Smith ’83. “He always had time to listen, probe for more details, and encourage me as I was defining who I was and wanted to be.”

Thompson’s skills as a professor were not diminished by the time he spent away from the classroom. In fact, he said that in many ways, he was still teaching sociology when he was dean.

“I never gave up teaching,” he said. “It was in a different form.”

And because of his experience as dean, his classroom material became more applicable and interesting.

“I could talk about things that were highly relevant to the students,” he said, “because I knew what went on in students’ lives.”

Thompson was selected as Faculty Member of the Year by Phi Kappa Tau fraternity twice and was recognized with the Monroe Moosnick Memorial Award for Service in 1997. Transylvania alumni are also recognizing his service with the endowment of an annual award to be given in his name to a student who displays outstanding leadership.

As for his plans after Transy, Thompson said he will teach part-time at the University of Kentucky and will volunteer at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital, where he’s served on the institutional research board for the past five years.

He and his wife, Donna, are also planning a trip to China as a joint celebration of his retirement and their 40th wedding anniversary.

When asked about the changes he’s seen during his 31 years at Transylvania, Thompson said it’s the things that have stayed the same that stand out.

“We’ve always had smart students who like to talk about their areas of interest,” he said. “For the most part, I just see lots of nice people, which has been the case all along.”

—LORI-LYN HURLEY

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