Tall Expectations

Note: George Thompson and I became friends through playing on the same IBM and YMCA volleyball teams in the early 1970s. George is 6' 4" tall and I'm 5' 8", so you can guess who was a spiker and who was a setter. This article appeared in the February 2006 issue of the Generations of Today magazine. I believe that the stories and messages George shares are as relevant today as they were then.

Reading time: 10 minutes

By Michael Ransom

                George Thompson

                George Thompson

On an unusually mild January evening this year, three hundred fifty people gathered for a banquet at the Kahler Grand Hotel to honor George Thompson, who would be stepping aside after ten years as Executive Director of Rochester’s Diversity Council. Seated at the head table with his wife, three children, their spouses, four grandchildren, and his brother, George was humbled by the tributes paid to him. When time came for him to speak, he began with words that he truly believes: “This night does not recognize what I have done. It recognizes what all of you have done.”  

       Through the work of dedicated groups like the Diversity Council, George is pleased that people have begun to improve their acceptance of minorities. When George and I met recently, he recalled when he first realized how cruel people could be. He spoke of Emmett Till.

       Emmett was a fourteen-year-old black youth from Chicago, the only son of Mamie Till. He was intelligent, bold, and had a slight mischievous streak. When Mamie put him on the bus to visit family near the small town of Money, Mississippi, she warned him, “Be careful. If you must get down on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly.” She knew the segregation he had experienced in Chicago was nothing compared with what he could encounter in Mississippi. It was August 1955, one year after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision that outlawed racial segregation of public education facilities. It would be the last time she saw her son alive.

       Accepting a dare from friends, Emmett entered a store in town, bought some candy, and on his way out supposedly said, “Bye baby,” to the white woman at the counter, who happened to be the wife of the store owner. He may even have whistled at her. No one knows for sure what he did. In the middle of the night a few days later, the store owner and his brother-in-law came to Emmett’s uncle’s house. They dragged Emmett from bed, beat him, castrated him, wrapped him in barbed wire, and threw his mutilated body into the Tallahatchie River.

       Thirteen at the time, George was visiting relatives on their farm near West Point, only thirty miles from where Emmett was murdered. Because his mother had died a year before and his father was intent on making sure his children knew their extended family, George and his six siblings spent summers in West Point with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and numerous cousins. Family communications weren’t as instantaneous then as they are now. Back in St. Louis, when George’s father heard that whites in a small town in Mississippi had killed a black youth, he feared that it might have been George.

       The Emmett Till case attracted national attention. The two kidnappers were arrested even before Emmett’s body was found, while people in the area pledged that justice would be served. The trial began on September 19, 1955. Four days later, the all-white jury deliberated for just over an hour, then returned a “not guilty” verdict. Anything but justice had been served.

       The Emmett Till tragedy instilled a tremendous amount of confusion and fear in George. He says, “How could someone get so mad at another, a person they didn’t even know, to want to hurt them so badly?  I learned early that the color of my skin could cause my death.”

       George realizes that he was too young at the time to see things in perspective. He lived in an all-black neighborhood in St. Louis, where the only white people in his life were the corner grocery store owners, an insurance man who would come into his neighborhood from time to time, and the milkman. He recalls, “I didn’t have negative experiences with any of those folks. Plus, my dad and uncles—the men in my life—were outstanding role models. Black men were good people who took care of their families.”

Into the 1950s, establishments in the South often had separate entrances for blacks and whites.

Into the 1950s, establishments in the South often had separate entrances for blacks and whites.

       George and his siblings continued to spend summers with their relatives in Mississippi. Preparing for the drive south, George’s father would pack sandwiches and beverages, because he knew there would be few if any restaurants along the way that would serve blacks. When they stopped for bathroom breaks, they obeyed the signs that designated facilities for “Whites” and “Colored.” Many times, recalls George, theirs weren’t in the best of shape. During the summer, George and his cousins couldn’t swim in the community pools, and the places designated for blacks were often dangerous gravel pits.

       George’s father talked to him about the whites and blacks with a tone in his voice that indicated he was serious. He would caution George, “You could be put in jail for something as harmless as drinking out of the whites’ fountains. You have to be careful.”

       George asked his dad, “Why are people so mad at us?” His father had no explanation.

       George became quite an athlete, excelling in several sports. Especially in basketball, but typical of George’s approach to life, he always wanted to compete against the best in order to improve his own skills. He became one of the top one-on-one basketball players in St. Louis, playing against JoJo White, for example, who starred at the University of Kansas and later in the NBA. “I couldn’t drive like JoJo,” notes George, “but I had a pretty good outside jump shot.” George also played five-on-five basketball against Earl (The Pearl) Monroe, one of the best ball handlers in the game. “Let’s just say that we couldn’t stop him,” notes George.    

       During George’s senior year in high school, his father remarried. Not in total agreement with whom his father had chosen to be his wife, George asked—and was given—permission to spend his final year of high school at West Point, where he could be with his extended family. He and his cousins made up more than half of the basketball team and a quarter of the football team. As leading scorer and rebounder on the former, and a solid player on the latter, George caught the eye of the coach of the local community college and accepted his offer to attend Mary Holmes Junior College. When time came to move on to a four-year college, he chose Clark College in Atlanta. His uncle Nathaniel Frank (called “NF”) Davis received his PhD in economics from Washington University in St. Louis and was a professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta. George was invited to live with NF, his wife Alice, and their two young sons Rich and Don.

George’s aunt Alice Coachman with Jesse Owens. Alice was a track star and won a gold medal in the 1948 Olympics.

George’s aunt Alice Coachman with Jesse Owens. Alice was a track star and won a gold medal in the 1948 Olympics.

       Alice had been a track star. Her maiden name was Coachmen. In London, England, in 1948, during the first Olympics held after World War II, she became the first African American woman to win an Olympic Gold medal in track and field – setting a new world record in the high jump. She was also an excellent sprinter. Her picture, along with Jesse Owens’, appeared in advertising for Coca Cola.   

       The seeds for George’s love of mentoring youth may have been planted at NF and Alice’s home. George was Rich and Don’s hero. They looked up to him in more ways than one, since George had grown to be six feet four inches tall. They followed George’s lead, even down to what he ate. Alice would say, “George, you have to eat your cereal. If you don’t, Rich and Don won’t eat theirs!”  

       George played basketball, football, and track at Clark. He tells of a track meet in which he competed against Bob Hayes, who would later (1963) set the world record in the 100-yard dash and be known as the “Fastest Man Alive.” George recalls, “I ran the third leg of the mile relay on our team, and it so happened that Hayes ran the same leg for his team. By the time I got the baton, Hayes was already twenty-five yards ahead of me. I remember thinking, ‘I’m not about to outrun Bob Hayes.’ And I didn’t, but it was some consolation that he didn’t leave me any further behind than he left the others. Bob’s team had only nine guys, but they finished nearly first, second, and third in every event. They were good.”

       Following graduation from college, George married Morsie Walker, and in 1967 their son Darrell was born on Thanksgiving Day. A year later, they moved to Rochester, where George would be one of the first blacks to work at their IBM facility. George asked his manager where in town he could and couldn’t go. His manager wanted to be helpful, but he said that he didn’t have the slightest idea. George and another black IBMer, Christopher Parnell, became friends, and together found out where blacks were and weren’t welcomed. A year after coming to Rochester, George and Morsie’s twins, Jenifer and George Jr., were born.

       When Darrell started grade school, minorities were less than half a percent of the student population. He began school a cheerful, positive little guy, but soon he realized how difficult being different could be. When George came home from work following Darrell’s first day of summer church school, Morsie said, “Darrell won’t come up from the basement. He’s been down there crying ever since he came home, and he won’t tell me what’s wrong.” She went to the school for an explanation and learned that some bigger children had chased Darrell and called him names. When Darrell started school at Gage Elementary, things began to improve.

       “IBM provided a good training ground for me,” says George. “As a manager, I could do much in the area of people empowerment, which really interested me. I used to read about motivating and leading people. I learned from Tom Peters’ books (In Search of Excellence, for example) and videotapes, and I would apply his advice at work. I was impressed with the incredible things my employees accomplished. Once, for example, when I asked them for ideas on improving our department’s efficiency, they determined that we could operate in a third of our manufacturing space and made changes that allowed us to dramatically reduce inventory. They made suggestions, I listened, and then I supported them. We also encouraged employees to publicly thank one another, which became a powerful way to foster teamwork. It’s amazing how much good a simple ‘thank you’ can do.”

George Jr. (left), Jenifer, and Darrell. Each went on to receive a Division I college scholarship. George was a setter for Pepperdine’s volleyball team and nearly made the U.S. men’s Olympic volleyball team in 1988. Jenifer was an outstanding volleyball player at the University of Iowa. Darrell excelled in football at the University of Minnesota and for the Green Bay Packers.

George Jr. (left), Jenifer, and Darrell. Each went on to receive a Division I college scholarship. George was a setter for Pepperdine’s volleyball team and nearly made the U.S. men’s Olympic volleyball team in 1988. Jenifer was an outstanding volleyball player at the University of Iowa. Darrell excelled in football at the University of Minnesota and for the Green Bay Packers.

       George became a respected leader by expecting as much (if not more) of himself as he did of others. He set the bar high. For example, realizing that he needed to improve his presentation skills, he joined Toastmasters. Soon after, he conducted mini-Toastmasters at home with Darrell, Jenifer, and George Jr., sharing with them what he learned. By the age of ten, each child could plan, prepare, and give a short talk at home on topics that George assigned. “Kids need role models,” says George, “to challenge them and to expect good things from them.” George and Morsie divorced in 1975, but they resolved that their children would remain their top priority, which they did. George married Terry Gaskill in 1977, who also supported that commitment. George, Terry, and Morsie did well, for Darrell, George Jr., and Jenifer each received a scholarship at a Division I school.

       Following his pre-retirement from IBM in 1994, since he liked spending time with kids and his three children were out on their own, George began volunteering for Rochester’s Diversity Council. He taught diversity to middle school students as a facilitator for a Prejudice Reduction Workshop. When the Council’s Director stepped aside in 1995, she suggested that George apply to be her replacement. He did and was hired. He recalls, “Once in the job, I realized how huge it was. At IBM I knew who my customers were and what products we delivered. Leading the Diversity Council was much less clear. A friend, Frank Iossi, gave me good advice. He said, ‘Your job isn’t to educate the minorities; it’s to educate the majority about differences.’ From him I learned that people are different and different doesn’t mean better or worse. Different simply means not alike. So, we set about how to accomplish our mission, how to raise the necessary funds, and how to improve the effectiveness of the programs we had.”

       Michelle Severson, who had been a co-facilitator with George, came up with an idea that would improve the curriculum. She suggested shorter programs that had tremendous impact and reached all age levels.”

       George said, “OK, Michelle, since I think you have a good idea, show me how you’d put this together.” She gave him a plan. They worked it out and then trained facilitators. They approached IBM and the Mayo Clinic for funding, saying, “We have a program that we believe will help make the community grow while becoming safer and more inclusive.” Because they had done their homework, they got the funding.

       A stressful incident occurred in 1997. A group of Rochester young men attacked a twelve-year-old Somali boy playing in his yard. For no reason other than the boy was not like them, the group beat him with baseball bats and golf clubs, leaving him bleeding and in pain. The Diversity Council led a drive called “Not in Our Town,” in which 32,000 in the community signed petitions that pledged such actions would not be tolerated in Rochester. Fortunately, the boy lived. His physical scars healed faster than his emotional ones, but over time he regained his faith in the community. Says George, “I think the way we handled that incident was the highlight of my years on the Diversity Council.”

       George was recently named Chairman of the Board of the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. He has served on their board for the past eight years. Though a new position for him, he will rely on his trademark caring, quiet, and humble manner to guide them. He’s already met the members of the board to listen to what’s on their minds. George believes that the board will remain committed to supporting Grand Rapids in addition to helping rural Minnesota communities grow and stay vibrant.

       “My grandchildren motivate me,” says George. “I want to make sure things are better for them than they were for me. If only people could realize that we all have more similarities than differences. I carry some baggage from things that happened to me. I was angry for a while, but anger can burn you up. We need to find ways to convert negative energy to positive. To improve society, we must take individual responsibility; we can’t sit back and wait for the government or other groups to do it for us. Because the Diversity Council delivers that message well, I’m honored to have served as their leader.”