I have been dreading this moment.
My beloved friend, mentor, and teacher has passed. I got the news via text about an hour before a show at the Akron Civic Center, week before last. I had to bury all of that emotion and go play, because that’s what professionals do. Ironically, I learned that from Ms. Thompson.
I went to her service at Oakwood Baptist in New Braunfels last week. The family did a great job putting together a memorial befitting such a legendary human. Ms. Thompson’s casket was in the sanctuary, front and center, and there was a visitation opportunity before the service got underway. It’s always brutal to see a deceased loved one in an open-casket situation. But it’s worth enduring the pain because, at least for me, observing first-hand that the spirit has left the body offers a visceral kick-start to the grieving process.
An orchestra took up the bulk of the stage, just behind the podium, and all of the musicians remained there for the duration of the service. They played a few well-chosen numbers throughout. There was also a sax/piano duet of “Amazing Grace.” But perhaps the most appropriate performance was at the very beginning, when a local drumline came parading through the sanctuary to kick things off with crackling snares, rifling toms, and booming bass drums. Ms. Thompson would’ve dug that.
A vintage Ms. Thompson in parade mode, circa mid-to-late 70s
The service was a poignant testament to a life well-lived, far beyond Ms. Thompson’s tremendous abilities as a teacher. And when the minister offered up an “open mic” mid-ceremony for anyone who wanted to share, the accolades kept coming in the form of personal stories: her paying out of pocket for student’s horn repairs and sheet music when they didn’t have the money; her charitable contributions and stalwart sense of social consciousness; and her motherly influence on so many kid’s lives… including a few who she stepped in and helped raise (nearly 50 years ago) that I didn’t even know about.
One of the more interesting, slightly contrasting elements to the service was how the minister portrayed Ms. Thompson, compared to how all of us students remembered her. He described her as sweet and loving (true), but then added that in his 15 or so years of knowing her, he never recalled her getting angry.
Conversely, during the open mic segment, several old students offered up colorful band room anecdotes about flying erasers and drill sergeant antics. This seemed to confuse Ms. Thompson’s more recent peers. It was then I realized something: Ms. Thompson had “retired” to New Braunfels in the 90s to enjoy her golden years near family (even though she continued to teach on various levels until she was 82). Therefore, most of her New Braunfels tribe—particularly her church friends—would’ve never had occasion to experience the more fiery, 40-something version of Ms. Thompson who was, let’s not forget, dealing with a bunch of disrespectful punks who needed to be kept in line. This point of distinction compelled me to step up to the mic.
Enjoying her golden years
But first, of course, I had to reiterate her enormous influence on my life path and try to articulate just how gifted and world-class of a teacher she truly was. And then I explained that Ms. Thompson’s “outbursts”—as endlessly entertaining as they were to us youngsters—were ultimately an expression of her love and concern for us. Frustration? Sure. Anger? Hell yes. But ultimately, it was because she cared so much: about us, about the band, and about the music. I know many people refer to her gruff protocols as “tough love,” but really, isn’t any pure form of love tough when it has to be? I say yes, and I say that we—especially I—had it coming when that notorious Ms. Thompson ire would pop up.
Here’s a quick case in point that I’ve rarely shared before: Toward the end of 9th grade, I auditioned for the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) in downtown Houston. This was a prestigious, nationally revered 10-12 high school—on par with the “Fame” high school in New York. The audition went well, and I was accepted on the spot. This was huge news: I was elated!
A few weeks later, however, several other young hoodlum percussionists and I got caught smoking cigarettes on the Scarborough auditorium stage, while rehearsing for an upcoming band concert. (Yes, on the stage—but out of view from the assistant band director—during rehearsal.) The young, upstart director went to Ms. Thompson to ask how we should be disciplined for such an infraction.
“Kick them out of the band,” was her immediate response. And that was it. I was kicked out of band and would have a bright, shiny “F” on my report card to show for it.
Now, remember, Ms. Thompson liked me and appreciated my talent and work ethic. But if ever there was a time for tough love, this was it. Any 14-year old punk who thinks he can operate outside the rules to that degree and get away with it is setting himself up for much more dire consequences a bit later in life… like prison, or worse. Ms. Thompson understood this, even though, at the time, I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t really care, because I was a big shot, heading to HSPVA the following year. Or was I?
That summer, as soon as HSPVA received my transcripts from Scarborough and saw that I had received an “F” in band, they immediately reversed their initial decision and sent me a rejection letter stating that I was not accepted there. My mom and I tried to call and reason with them, but they were not budging. (Apparently, that bright, shiny “F” in band violated their acceptance criteria for a music student!) I was devastated.
This is the “Bobby Rock” Ms. Thompson had to deal with!
The happy-ending coda to the story is that the next year, upon my return to Scarborough, I was given a fresh start by Ms. Thompson and worked with her in the jazz band. The band was killin’, and we brought the house down at several area jazz band contests, garnering extra accolades from the judges and winning special awards for outstanding musicianship. I had learned my lesson, and we were back on track.
Tough love works… and this seemed to be a reoccurring theme at Ms. Thompson’s service.
That said, her expressions of love weren’t always “tough.” They were often intuitive, selfless, and remarkably generous. And above all else, they were far-reaching. Think about it: Anyone I’ve influenced through the years, is also the beneficiary of her influence because so much of where I wound up is because of her. And I’m just one in an endless line of students who Ms. Thompson affected through the years. Truly, her positive imprint is incalculable.
After the memorial, I had a chance to visit with a few folks at the reception, including two of Ms. Thompson’s close friends. They told me they went to her house, late morning on Thursday, 10-24, to pick her up for lunch. When she didn’t answer the doorbell, they got concerned and called a family member who they knew had a key to her place. Once they all went inside, they found Ms. Thompson “sleeping” on a loveseat in her music room… except she wasn’t actually sleeping. She had peacefully drifted away from this life and into the next, in her favorite room in the house. What a way to go.
At her surprise 75th birthday party
And what an honorable life to have lived.
Mary Thompson was a force of nature… a truly gifted and unforgettable teacher who leaves behind a legacy of thousands of students… all of us forever altered, on one level or another, by her “southern fried wisdom” and insistence that we evolve into the best version of ourselves – both onstage and off.
I was fortunate to have always stayed in touch with Ms. Thompson through the decades. But when she told me a couple years ago that her ailing health was preventing her from being able to play her clarinet—or continue to teach—I knew she would be moving on sooner than later. So now, we can all try and take solace in the fact that she is joyfully free of such cruel impediments, as we envision her playing and teaching her ass off in that Great Band Hall in the Sky.
We love you, and we will never forget you, Ms. Thompson…
PS. See my original post, Ms. Thompson, the Great, here: