SMITH COLUMN: Remembering Jack Thompson

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, March 31, 2021

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The recent death of Jack Thompson left me recalling his departure from this troubled earth with a flood of warm reminisces, dating back to the time when we were teammates at the University of Georgia.

As members of the Bulldog track team, we trained under the watchful eye of Forrest Spec Towns, who won the Olympic High Hurdles at Berlin in 1936 — under the evil eye of Adolph Hitler.

The great champion had an especial affection for Jack as he did every precocious hurdler who came his way. He was always hopeful that one day, a hurdler with skills akin to his own, might show up at the UGA track.

Jack was one of the better hurdlers to come Spec’s way with more than adequate skills for the event. However, he lacked the top speed that would move him to the forefront of international competition. Nonetheless, the two men enjoyed a warm and engaging rapport. To paraphrase an old TV commercial, Jack was an Avis hurdler — he tried harder. He was a seasoned competitor, the type who would scratch your eyes out to best you on the track, but the consummate gentleman and good guy away from competition.

That Jack had a bent for the military also pleased Towns very much.  Towns came home from the Olympics and was hardly settled following graduation at Georgia before he was back in Europe with a different mission. He went back to do his part to help the Allies take the road to Berlin to rid the world of Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Early on, I noticed that Jack, a very disciplined student, would arrive at the track long before the rest of the team. He practiced his craft with a burning commitment, but an early arrival for routine pre-practice enabled him to engage in relaxed conversation with his coach.

A coach enjoys nothing more than having a player look up to him and seek his counsel and advice. 

Or engage in casual story telling.

With Jack, he could not get enough of conversation with Towns. He wanted to know what Olympiastadion was like in Berlin. Did he see Hitler? Did Hitler snub Jesse Owens? What was sauerkraut like? The trip across the Atlantic? And, World War II? (Jack was studying for a degree in political science and wanted Towns’ take on the Nazi government). Jack peppered his coach with questions about his exalted career and life experiences.   

In my mind’s eye, I can see the two of them in deep conversation, Jack with one leg propped up on a hurdle grinning generously. Jack’s acquiring mind was engaged. and he was experiencing uplifting fulfillment.

It wouldn’t be long before Towns’ personality flipped. As practice got underway his booming voice was immediately in overdrive. Nobody was spared his drill sergeant style exhortations. If anybody who had dissipated the night before or had gulped an extra helping or two at lunch and was seen upchucking on the infield grass, Towns delighted in one of his charges “feeding the birds.” 

I don’t remember that happening to Jack, but when he crashed into an immovable hurdle or tripped and felt the flesh of a limb scrape with gnashing and debilitating coarseness of the cinder track, Towns only grinned.  The coach was witnessing the making of a hurdler.

Following college, Jack enlisted into the Army and was sent to West Germany for his initial assignment — to some degree following the military path of his coach. He was serving his country where his coach had served before him but without guns a blazing. In 1964 when the rest of his teammates were off to various professional careers, Jack received a direct Army commission and would not look back. 

He served his country honorably, including time in Viet Nam, and finished his military career with multiple citations and medals including Bronze and Silver Stars.  Somewhere his coach was smiling.

Leaving the military, Jack and his wife, Connie, settled down, first in Cumming and subsequently in Dahlonega. His former teammates then got to see more of Jack who exemplified the ultimate commitment of giving back. He helped raise funds for “Wounded Warrior” programs, he supported military officer organizations, and he mentored hurdlers at local high schools. He was always up and patriotic ready on Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day, participating in any ceremony that honored the military and, in particular, saluting those who made the supreme sacrifice.

Accenting his well-rounded lifestyle was that he became a barbecue snob.   “Oh, how he enjoyed barbecue and an opportunity to try a new joint and critique the barbecue,” says his long-time friend Paul Wingo.

You won’t find the following on a plaque or in a newspaper clipping, but this tribute from one of his Bulldog teammates, David Cleghorn, reminds us all of the essence of Jack Clark Thompson.  “He was,” said Cleghorn, “a good teammate and a good person.”