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Miller Center Celebrates Life of Kenneth W. Thompson

Kenneth W. Thompson

Kenneth W. Thompson, Director of the Miller Center from 1978-1998. He continued to head the Center’s Forum Program until 2004.

On April 12, 2013 the Miller Center celebrated the life of Kenneth W. Thompson, who headed the Miller Center from 1978-1998. As Governor Gerald Baliles, Director and CEO of the Miller Center, noted, “The Miller Center would not be what it is today without the inspiration and passion of Ken Thompson Ken initiated much of the work that continues to this day. Because of him, presidential history that might otherwise have been lost will be preserved for generations to come. Ken will be greatly missed, but his legacy will live on as we carry on what he started.”  In this post, we highlight remarks from Gov. Baliles, Gov. Linwood Holton, Leonard Sandridge, Eugene Fife, Philip Zelikow, Shirley Burke and students delivered at the memorial service remembering the life and work of Professor Thompson.

During the memorial service, Gov. Baliles remarked:

Ken never found a satisfactory substitute for public service and public policy…He was one of the most influential in establishing the Center and three key programs. The first is the Forum Program, which he chaired until the age of 84. He also conducted the Center’s first Oral History, that of Jimmy Carter and his administration. It was the first in the post-Watergate presidency where scholars didn’t have taped recordings. Finally, he launched the Center’s National Commission. He organized eight such commissions on topics ranging from disability to the selection of federal judges. The National Commission has become a platform for the Miller Center to engage with the policy world.

Gov. Linwood Holton, Governor of Virginia from 1970 to 1974 and member of the Miller Center Governing Council:

It’s a sad occasion but it is wonderful to celebrate a life that has meant so much to many of us. Ken understood the purpose of the Miller Center. He understood that Mr. Miller wanted to be an assistant to the President of the United States to help make better decisions. Mr. Miller believed that we backed into the war in Vietnam and no one made a decision to do so. Mr. Miller wanted to cure this deficiency. One of Ken’s first accomplishments that made an impact on a national basis was The National Commission on Presidential Press Conferences. In 1981, the Miller Center made recommendations to make presidential press conferences more decent and orderly. President Reagan’s press secretary, Jim Brady, read the Center’s report and adopted the reports conclusions.

Leonard Sandridge, former Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at the University of Virginia:

I was impressed with the national leaders he knew and could call upon. But you would have to see it for yourself because he was not a name dropper.

Eugene V. Fife, a former partner at Goldman Sachs and a founding principal of Vawter Capital LLC and the chairman of the Miller Center Governing Council:

Ken’s smile, I don’t know how to describe it. There was a warmth about the man that came across.

When I was thinking about what I would say about Ken, the first word I came up with is warmth. He was a good, good guy.

The second is respect. Why is that the rolodex stayed so active? Why did they return his call? The core of that is that they respected the man. And his opinions mattered.

The third word I came up with is love. He obviously loved his family. He loved teaching and loved his students. He loved talking about the issues and striking a balance. He loved this Center, everything it stood for.

He had a wonderful gift of interrelationships with people.

Philip D. Zelikow, former Miller Center Director and Associate Dean for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia:

After World War II, Ken was like a lot of Americans who realized that they came into a whole new world. He was part of a generation that asked: How do I help my country figure out its place in the world? He became part of a founding generation of scholars in a field called International Relations. Ken Thompson became one of the giants in the field.

His second intellectual contribution was to create a unique center.

He also contributed to enriching community. The Forum Program is just one example in which he served both the university and the Charlottesville community. He also served the university. I’d see the unfailing graciousness in all of his dealings at the university and in his students.

I want to remember the day in which we dedicated the pavilion. We were all gathered and appreciated how extraordinary it was because it was a faculty member’s name on the building. The outpouring that day showed that his name deserved to be on edifice, not just in stone, but also in our hearts. 

Shirley Burke, Ken’s long-time and long-suffering Executive Assistant:

I started working at the Miller Center in 1976. It was a few years after that that I became Mr. Thompson's secretary and his pencil sharpener. We didn’t have email those days, but he did kind of have that way of communicating. It was a pencil, an outbox and a notebox. We went through a lot of pencils. He would write everything on the pads. “Please clip this. Don’t fold. Save for the quarterly report.” He had a tablet for writing all his books, which I typed. We went through a lot of pencils. When I got more confident in my job, I decided to buy him a pencil sharpener. He didn’t get along with the pencil sharpener very well, so I went back to sharpening his pencils. Those were great days and I’m grateful I had the honor to work with him and be his pencil sharpener. Thank you, Mr. Thompson.

David, a former student of Mr. Thompson:

There are three facets of his character that I want to highlight. The first is his brilliance and eminence as a scholar. His conceptions of power, principle and practice were essential to the field of International Relations. Second, the sheer breadth of his sympathies and interests. He knew and helped to fund a wide array of scholars and from across the political spectrum. Finally, I would point to his sheer kindness and generosity. He may have been careful with the resources of the Center, but he practiced the utmost liberality and generosity with his students.

Read more about Kenneth Thompson here.

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