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Remembering an Indomitable Spirit with a Gift of Love

Marjorie Thompson’s sons honor her memory with an endowed scholarship for post-traditional women students at Syracuse University.

5 young brothers on one knee surround a dog for a christmas card photo. Click to read the story.
A Thompson Christmas card photo from the 60s: (from left) Pete, Jim, John, Paul and Charley.

When Marjorie Thompson ’74 was an undergraduate at Michigan State University in the 1940s, she took a summer job in the dean’s office at Harvard University. One day Chuck Thompson, a student who was enrolled at Harvard through the U.S. Navy’s Officer Training Program, came into the office to meet with the dean and struck up a conversation with the attractive young assistant. They were both smitten, and he asked her out. On that first date, the sailor announced that he wanted to have five sons. “She was horrified at this and swore she would not go out on a second date with him,” says Charley Thompson ’76.

Charley is the youngest of Chuck and Marjorie Thompson’s five sons.

Marjorie Thompson portrait.
Young Marjorie Thompson

“Mom was stunning,” says Paul Thompson ’75, the fourth in line. “With her dark hair and piercing blue eyes, she must have been a magnet to young men as the world entered into World War II. My mom and dad had a strong attraction to one another that only grew stronger as they aged together.”

Chuck Thompson graduated from Harvard in 1947 after fulfilling his assignment as an ensign aboard the destroyer USS Massey. His sons remember him as an extraordinary salesman who enjoyed a successful career that culminated in his appointment as vice president of sales for the Gladding Corporation. Looking for a new opportunity, Thompson visited his good friend William P. Tolley , who was the Chancellor of Syracuse University at the time. Tolley convinced him to start a second career in 1967 as the University’s first director of corporate and foundation relations.

Finishing a Long-Delayed Degree

Marjorie had interrupted her pursuit of a journalism degree to fully devote herself to raising her boys, first in Pittsburgh and later in Cazenovia, New York. When Charley graduated from high school and announced that he would be attending Syracuse University, Marjorie asked if he’d mind having his mother tag along. She wanted to finish the degree she’d started 25 years earlier. He loved the idea, and mother and son both enrolled at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications .

Future Syracuse University students will now benefit from that connection. The Thompson brothers—three of whom are Syracuse University graduates—have established the Marjorie J. Thompson Endowed Scholarship in Journalism Fund in memory of their mother, who died in 1990 from an aggressive form of thyroid cancer. It will be funded through the brothers’ estate plans and cash gifts. John ’72, Paul ’75 and Charley ’76, along with older brothers Peter and Jim, want the scholarship to benefit post-traditional students—individuals who are returning to school after a long absence, like their mother did. “My mom’s education was interrupted, and she never regretted it, but she also never lost the desire to complete her degree and have a career,” Charley says. “We would love to see the scholarship go to someone just like that—an individual who recognizes the value of a Syracuse University degree but needs financial assistance to fulfill that dream.”

We would love to see the scholarship go to someone just like [mom]—an individual who recognizes the value of a Syracuse University degree but needs financial assistance to fulfill that dream.

—Charley Thompson

Paul remembers his mother as an intrepid soul. One of his earliest memories is of the family moving from Pittsburgh to Central New York. “We drove into the heart of a developing blizzard,” he recalls. “My dad gripped the steering wheel as my mother leaned out the passenger window and used a plastic cracker box to scrape the snow off the windshield. When the plastic box blew away, she used a cardboard box to combat the blinding storm.”

Where the Heart Is

Their new home in Cazenovia was something of a disappointment at first. “It was an ancient and disused dairy farm, and as we were moving in contractors were destroying and then rebuilding the house’s kitchen,” Paul remembers. “It took some time for me to appreciate that my parents had moved us to a young boy’s paradise where we could roam freely on five acres. Unlike many of our neighbors, we had no cows. But we had a huge wood-pegged beam barn and a stream flowing right through our property.”

Coming of age in the Thompson household was not for the timid. “My dad had grown up in a broken home without functioning parents,” Charley explains. “The Navy was the only discipline he had known, so he brought that home. Our house was ‘The Sound of Music’ without the music. During the week we flourished under Mom’s love and kindness while Dad was on the road, selling plywood. When Dad got home Friday night we had to line up at attention for inspection. We were taught to march and had to address him as ‘sir.’ Luckily, he mellowed considerably as he got older.”

Beginning in 1959, Chuck and Marjorie Thompson took their boys on five-week, cross-country camping trips each year. “My dad attached a plywood box to the roof rack to hold our camping gear and clothes,” Charley remembers. “We would shoehorn all seven of us into a Pontiac station wagon and head out. We drove 11,000 miles to Alaska and back, twice. We toured the western U.S., the Canadian Maritimes, New York City and Washington D.C. My folks were determined to open our eyes to nature and the world. It was both inspiring and insane—I don’t know how they kept us from killing each other.”

A Woman of Substance

Husband and wife dressed formally smile for a photo.
Chuck and Marjorie Thompson.

His mother’s integrity and sense of humor were the qualities John, the middle son, admired most. “She joined the local garden club one year and found it a little too class conscious,” he says. “Her membership was short-lived when a woman was denied membership because she was Jewish. Mom stood up and said something like ‘If she’s not good enough for you then I’m not good enough for you’ and made for the exit. A couple of other courageous women followed her out.”

He recalls another bit of family lore about a presentation his father delivered to a live audience. During his speech, he realized he hadn’t given credit to his loyal spouse. “So he added something like ‘Behind every successful man there is a loving, caring, attentive woman,’” John says. “Mom piped up so all could hear, ‘Let me at her and I’ll scratch her eyes out!’ It brought down the house.”

Paul’s memories of his upbringing are of a strong support system and focus on education. “Before the days of disposable diapers Mom was a housewife who made our beds, washed our clothes and cleaned and maintained the home. She promoted and stood by her sons, and never once missed a school event or sports game. She and dad championed education, and from an early age they made sure that in our minds it was not if but where each of us would go to college.”

College and Careers

Thompson Brothers pose for a present day family photo.
The Thompson brothers have established a scholarship in memory of their mother, Marjorie Thompson ’74. From left: Charley, Paul, John, Jim and Pete Thompson.

All five of the Thompson boys earned college degrees and went on to have successful careers. Peter graduated from Lehigh University in 1970 and is a builder in Hellertown, Pennsylvania. Jim graduated from Ithaca College in 1971 and is now retired from a career in nonprofit advancement. John graduated from Syracuse University in 1972 with a B.F.A. in art history from the College of Visual and Performing Arts . He is an accomplished visual artist whose work is featured in galleries across the country. Paul graduated from the College of Engineering and Computer Science in 1975 with dual degrees in physics and chemical engineering. He recently retired from Boeing as an engineer. “I’ve always felt I can do what I want, live where I want, choose my employer and choose my job because I hold this all-empowering ticket: a Syracuse University degree,” Paul says. Charley earned a B.F.A. in experimental studies from Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts in 1976. He works as a major gifts officer at Northeastern University.

Charley enjoyed running into his mother on campus while he was an undergraduate. “Syracuse was great for me,” he says. “I joined Delta Kappa Epsilon (Deke), and all my fraternity brothers knew her. I spent the first two years having entirely too much fun, and nearly flunked out. So I transferred from Newhouse to VPA with some terrific support from dean Gus Freundlich, who was a close friend of my parents. I did well my last two years, and I received a quality education.”

Marjorie was a talented and ambitious post-traditional student who was thrilled to be part of the vibrant Syracuse University community of the 1970s. At age 48, she completed the credits she needed for a B.A. in journalism from the Newhouse School in 1974. “Dad was her biggest proponent and fully supported her career aspirations,” says Jim. When she and Chuck moved to the Boston area in the late 1970s, Marjorie, like her husband, took up a career in philanthropy. “Her success had much to do with her compassion and true interest in other people,” says John. “She managed to wrangle gifts from folks who had formerly been tightfisted because she was trusted and respected.”

A Lasting Impression

Marjorie’s last ten years were spent as director of development at Buckingham, Browne and Nichols, an independent day school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “She oversaw the school’s largest-ever capital campaign and helped secure an $8 million gift in 1989, which was extraordinary for a private school at the time,” says Jim. “When she died in 1990 it was remarkable to hear from all those she touched. Her professionalism as a writer, speaker and dear friend to alumni and parents left a lasting imprint on the school.”

That imprint remains on her five sons. “My mom was indomitable,” Charley says. “She was optimistic, energetic, extremely hardworking, forgiving, patient, supportive and above all, loving. Our parents always taught us to be generous and give back, and we are inspired to create the Marjorie Thompson scholarship because we want to help people like our mom. She continues to be our inspiration.”

Mary Beth Horsington

This story was published on .

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