A man of many stories: Retired educator Ken Thompson experienced Iwo Jima landing
WORTHINGTON -- From St. Paul Johnson High School to Hamline University to Iwo Jima to a 36-year career as a teacher, coach and athletic director at Worthington High School, 90-year-old Ken Thompson has enjoyed a wealth of memorable experiences few could rival.
He played in three national collegiate basketball tournaments in Kansas City, Mo. He served with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Ocean during the final 15 months of World War II. He played college basketball with Vern Mikkelsen and against George Mikan (both of whom later starred together with the NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers).
He played minor-league professional baseball in the summer of 1942 as a shortstop with the Grand Forks (N.D.) Chiefs in the Class D Northern League. He played first base for the Worthington Cubs (semiprofessional) when Hall-of-Famer Satchell Paige pitched three innings against St. James in a game at the "old fairgrounds field" where Worthington High School is now.
He played with the Worthington VFW basketball team in a national tournament in Bozeman, Mont. And he, along with his sweetheart, Helen, raised two daughters and made Worthington home for more than six decades.
"Ken Thompson is an amazing guy with so many fascinating experiences," declared retired Worthington teacher and long-time Trojans head football coach Dennis Hale. "He has lots of great stories to tell, which I always enjoy hearing."
Hale is certainly right on the money with that statement.
Sitting in his living room at his house on Burlington Avenue, Thompson freely visited for several hours about his days growing up in St. Paul, his many basketball and baseball experiences, his time in the Navy -- which including landings at both Iwo Jima and Okinawa -- and about his time spent working for the Worthington school district.
Ken and Helen (married in Stillwater on June 30, 1944) moved to Worthington in the summer of 1947, as Thompson wanted to become a high school head basketball coach. He turned down an assistant coaching position in Owatonna, where he was playing semi-pro baseball at the time, "because I wanted to be a head coach," Thompson recalled about his decision to come to Worthington.
As it turned out, however, Thompson had to wait a year to get the opportunity to coach the Trojans and spent the winter of '47-'48 as the head coach for the junior college team.
One of Thompson's Bluejay players was Lakefield native Hugo Goehle, who later became the legendary football, basketball and track coach at Hills and Hills-Beaver Creek, putting out highly regarded teams in each sport year after year through four decades. Goehle's teams won 564 high school boys' basketball games, and the gymnasium at H-BC was named in his honor.
In '48-'49, however, Thompson became head coach for the Trojans, and WHS capped a fine season by winning its first District 8 championship since 1926.
"That ranks right up there with my all-time athletic thrills," recalled Thompson about winning the district title in his first season as the coach. "We had so many good kids who listened and wanted to play. It was a fun experience."
Dave Fagerness, Russ Rickers, Clarence Benson, Lupe Roth and Don Frerichs were the usual starting five on that 1949 WHS District 8 championship team.
Over the next decade, Thompson continued to coach basketball for the Trojans, winning two more district titles in 1951 and 1952, while advancing to the championship game again in 1956.
Meanwhile, Thompson -- who had started out as the head baseball coach for WHS -- turned over the reigns of the Trojan baseball team to his good friend Danny Regnier and became the school's head golf coach.
Coaching for nearly 30 years, Thompson enjoyed many memorable springs -- and one fall (1969) -- in charge of the Trojan golfers, which included a state championship in 1957 earned by the scoring trio of Bob Balega, Joel Goldstrand and Forrest "Butch" Meyeraan.
Goldstrand later became a professional golfer and a golf course designer -- including laying out the course at Prairie View Golf Links northwest of Worthington in the early 1980s.
"I had so many great golfers," praised Thompson. "Several became doctors and almost all of them continued to play golf."
A big thrill for Thompson was when a bunch of his golfers came back to town last summer for his 90th birthday and he rode the course with them in the cart, playing several rounds.
"I know that was special for Ken," noted long-time colleague Rich Adel, who was an assistant basketball coach, head cross country coach and Trojan Relays co-meet director for many years. "He had a very strong bond with his coaches and athletes, especially those golfers."
Ken Thompson, WHS Athletic Director, '59-'82
While Thompson is certainly remembered well in Worthington for his years as a Cubs' slugger, for his 11 years as the Trojans' head basketball coach and for those three decades as the WHS golf coach, Ken was, perhaps, best known as the Worthington High School athletic director -- a post in which he served for 24 years.
"It was something I knew I wanted to do," recalled Thompson of his decision in 1959 to give up coaching basketball and accept the newly created position as the school's director of athletics. "Arnold Sanderson, the principal, was in charge of the coaches. But there was a movement around the area school districts to get someone with a coaching background to handle all of the scheduling, hiring of officials, budgeting and other concerns for all the athletic programs, as well as working with each coach."
It was a position which Thompson latched onto well, and he became highly-respected throughout the area as a firm but fair administrator.
"Ken was a gracious man, always fair," recalled Adel. "He was great to work for. You could always talk things over with him. But, he stuck firm with his decisions."
Thompson was the administrator in charge -- the tournament director -- for the numerous District 7, District 8 and Region 2 basketball games played at the Worthington High School gymnasium.
"We used to just pack the place in the '60s and '70s for those games," Thompson remembered. "Edgerton, which won the state title in 1960, was really a huge draw that season and for a couple of years after that. Then Luverne was the big draw for several tournaments. We sure had big crowds and great games in our gym."
Bob Nangle was Edgerton's assistant basketball coach during both the Flying Dutchmen's 1961 and 1963 District 8 championship runs and later became a multiple sport head coach at Pipestone, where he is still the school's athletic director.
"He ran those basketball tournaments in Worthington very, very well for years," recalled Nangle of Thompson's management skills.
"Ken was always a gentleman who had the best interests of the Trojans at heart, as well as the Southwest Conference and District 8. He was already an 'old guy' in the business (of being an athletic director) by the time I got in, so I always appreciated and respected his input at our meetings."
Adel, who was hired by Thompson in 1961, agreed with those thoughts.
"Ken worked hard and did special things to help unify us coaches and build pride in our programs," said Adel, who coached B-squad boys' basketball for 26 seasons. "He created a fraternity among us and came up with the idea of a 'ring club' to reward us for length of service, conference championships and regional advancements. It was quite an honor, getting recognized in a positive way by Mr. Thompson."
Hale, who was hired by Superintendent Shirl Held in 1977 to take the reigns of the Trojans' football team, also appreciated the wisdom and common sense of Thompson as his A.D. during his early years here in Worthington.
"I first met Ken when he came to a golf tournament at the Jackson Country Club to tell me there was a football opening in Worthington," recalled Hale. "He wanted to know if I was interested. I think Ken influenced Mr. Held, and I got the job."
"One of the best things I ever did," said Thompson about Hale's hiring. "What a great man. If I could have had a son, I would have liked him to be like Denny."
Don Basche, who played basketball for Thompson on those '51 and '52 district title teams and later was the head boys' basketball coach at WHS for 28 seasons ('61-'62 -- '88-'89), mentioned how concerned Ken was with people having a good experience coming to a tournament game.
"Ken was always concerned about getting things run correctly and making sure that people felt comfortable when they watched a game here," recalled Basche. "He wanted basketball fans to feel good about the atmosphere and enjoy themselves."
While continuing to coach golf and teach geology, Thompson stayed on as the WHS athletic director until retiring from education in the spring of 1982 -- completing 36 full years with District 518.
"I sure enjoyed all of those years," Thompson said. "I worked with so many great people -- board members, administrators, teachers, coaches, officials, fellow athletic directors and, of course, the kids. I wouldn't have changed a bit of it."
St. Paul All-City in '38, but no cash for college
Thompson grew up on Lawson Street in St. Paul across from Cleveland Junior High School, about two-and-a-half miles from downtown. Ken's mom was a maid and his dad a full-time fireman who was badly injured in a fire attempting to save the junior high building during Ken's sophomore year at Johnson High School.
"My dad hurt his back and was laid up for quite a while," recalled Ken. "All the junior high kids came to Johnson for the rest of the year and we had a split schedule -- high school kids in the morning and junior high in the afternoon."
Thompson excelled in basketball at Johnson, which played in the St. Paul City Conference with Mechanic Arts, Humboldt, Harding, Central and Washington.
At 6-2, Thompson was the tallest center in the league his junior year. But in his senior season, St. Paul Central had three guys who were 6-4.
Playing most of their games at the St. Paul Auditorium or the smoke-filled St. Paul Armory, Thompson played well enough to earn All-City honors in basketball as a senior in 1938, graduating with a class of about 700.
"It was a big school, but we didn't even have baseball until I was a junior in '37," he recalled. "I wanted to go to college and play basketball for Joe Hutton at Hamline, but I didn't have enough money to go."
So, Thompson worked for three years until he saved up enough cash to enroll at Hamline in the fall of 1941.
"I worked in grocery stores and did cleaning at Northwest Airlines," recalled Thompson. "I also played a lot of basketball and baseball. I was playing four nights of City League basketball one winter and scored 32 points one night."
Thompson's freshman year at Hamline was memorable, as the Pipers qualified for the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) small-college national tournament in Kansas City.
Undefeated since an opening game loss to the Harlem Globetrotters -- who played regular basketball in those days -- Hamline won the national championship with Thompson as a 6-2 freshman forward, joined in the front line by 6-7 Howie Schultz and 6-5 John Norlander.
Schultz later played Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Norlander played in the NBA.
Thompson and the Pipers returned to Kansas City in 1943, but were defeated by North Texas State in the third round.
A highlight of Thompson's sophomore year was a narrow 43-38 loss to the 1941 NCAA champion Wisconsin Badgers in Madison.
"That was a big-time game, the small-college champions vs. the big-college champs," remembered Thompson. "We almost won,but I've never been screened so hard in my life."
Naval Training and Active Duty aboard the USS Missoula, '43-'46
With World War II in full swing, Thompson joined the Naval Reserve on July 1, 1943.
He reported to Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter and studied to become a midshipman while also being able to play basketball.
Ken earned All-State honors for the Gusties before reporting to active duty training at Plattsburgh, N.Y., on March 4, 1944.
Three months later, he was commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy. After small boats training in San Diego, Calif., Thompson set sail on the USS Missoula in November of 1944.
Thompson had returned to Minnesota, however, in late June of '44 to marry Helen Backe, whom he had met at Hamline when Hutton brought in 10 freshman girls to dance with the Pipers' basketball players to try to improve their rhythm and coordination.
"I don't know if the dancing helped our basketball or not," joked Thompson. "But three of the players ended up going out with and marrying three of those girls. So, I sure thought Coach Hutton had a great idea."
After spending a couple of months in Hawaii helping train Marines on landing tactics, the Missoula headed west in January of 1945.
Thompson's first engagement came at Iwo Jima in February, when they escorted the Fourth Marine Division to the shores of the island.
"I was in command of six landing crafts with 30 Marines on each," recalled Thompson of his days at Iwo Jima. "We took the first troops ashore, but there wasn't any major attack on the landing itself like there was on some of the other islands.
"But two or three hours later, the Marines were getting shelled pretty hard. It was a vicious battle."
From the Missoula, Thompson saw the flag being raised on Mount Surabachi on the second day of the battle. The fight for Iwo Jima, however, would rage on for another three weeks.
Thompson didn't see too much more at Iwo, as the Missoula became a hospital ship and escorted the casualties to Saipan. There, he helped train Army troops for their amphibious assault on Okinawa.
As commander of a landing craft crew, Thompson did at Okinawa what he had done at Iwo Jima -- transport troops to the beaches.
As the Battle of Okinawa progressed, the 400-500 U.S ships in the area had another major concern -- the kamikazes or Japanese suicide planes that crashed into American ships, causing extensive damage and killing sailors.
"The Missoula never got hit, but we were up on deck every night at 11:30, watching out for it," he recalled. "There were some big explosions, and it was a very scary time."
After victory at Okinawa, Thompson may have been scheduled to help with the planned massive assault on mainland Japan.
But the U.S. dropped a pair of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, ending the war.
Thompson's last memory of the war -- still aboard the Missoula -- was more pleasurable.
"We sailed right past the USS Missouri the day (Sept. 2, 1945) the final peace agreement was signed," Thompson remembered. "That was something I won't forget."
After staying near the coast of Japan for several months, the Missoula sailed for Seattle, getting lots of GIs home for Christmas.
Back to Hamline
Having been at sea for 15 months, Thompson was able to take leave and returned to Hamline for the second semester. He joined the basketball team in January of 1946.
He was officially discharged from active duty at Great Lakes Naval Base in Chicago, leaving as a Lieutenant Junior Grade, having been promoted.
Back at Hamline, Thompson played guard his last two seasons and played with Vern Mikkelsen -- who later became a top-notch NBA star with the Minneapolis Lakers.
During the '46-'47 season, Thompson played with Mikkelsen and against DePaul University (Chicago) star George Mikan, who was 6-10.
"Vern fouled out and then I had to guard Mikan," recalled Thompson. "That was an experience. He had eight inches on me, and he was so good with that hook shot of his."
The Pipers qualified for the national tournament again, but lost in the second round at Kansas City, as Thompson finished up a stellar five-year collegiate career.
"Because the year at Gustavus was military-related, it didn't count against by eligibility, so I was able to play five seasons," summed up Thompson about his college basketball days. "I had a great time playing, that's for sure."
'Rock Hound' to 'Squirrel Slayer'?
While Thompson came to Worthington as a physical education and mathematics teacher, he took summer classes and expanded his teaching interests to the science department, developing a special interest in geology.
'I guess I became kind of a 'rock hound,'" he said. "I really enjoyed collecting rocks and teaching about the earth's surface and its changes. I still taught geology classes for many years while I was the A.D."
Helen was at Ken's side throughout his long career at WHS, as she frequently kept her own scorecard and supported him through his many endeavors -- which also included several years of football and basketball officiating.
"I never could have done it all without a wonderful wife like Helen," exclaimed Thompson about his mate of nearly 66 years.
After several years of declining health, Helen passed away nearly a year ago and Ken has had to go on without her.
"He was so devoted to Helen," said Adel. "Ken spent most of his time up with her at the nursing home in her last years."
The Thompsons' two daughters -- Claudia (Bullhead City, Ariz.) and Ann (Tampa,Fla.) -- call and write frequently, while friends like Reuben Svingen, Swede Lundgren, Adel and Hale -- to name just a few -- still visit regularly.
And now, Thompson has a new mission.
He has a pesky squirrel who is wreaking havoc with his bird feeder and messing up things in his garage.
"I'd like to get a pellet gun and let him have it," Thompson says of the squirrel. "But they say that I can't use a pellet gun in town. I'll come up with some kind of trap for him. I am tired of that squirrel ruining things and eating food which is for the birds."
Whether playing baseball or basketball, transporting U.S. Marines into battle, teaching about geology and rock collecting, coaching basketball or golf, serving as an athletic director and being in charge of a big tournament -- or being a caring husband, father and friend -- Worthington's Ken Thompson has about done it all.
Here's betting that he wins his battle against that pesky squirrel.