Creating opportunities with philanthropy
Williston gave Roderick “Stu” Thomson, Jr. ’54 new opportunities. Now, he is doing the same for the next generation.
Roderick “Stu” Thomson ’54 had dreams of becoming a quarterback in the National Football League, and though he is not one to brag, many believed he had the athletic talent to make it. Playing for Winchester High School, back in the 1950s, when “high school football in Massachusetts was as good as anywhere in the country,” Stu led a team that was the best in the state his junior year. That same year his basketball squad also won the state championship at Boston Garden. He earned all-scholastic honors in both sports.
But as promising as he was as an athlete, his performance as a student was less so. “I must not have taken the right courses,” he says, “and I couldn’t get into a decent college.” A local coach with a connection to Williston Academy suggested he consider a post-graduate year. Stu made the bus trip west, took an IQ exam, and was offered a full scholarship.
That fall, Stu’s leadership helped the football team remain undefeated going into the season’s last game against Deerfield. Three minutes in, Stu was tackled and suffered a severe knee injury. Williston lost, and Stu was sidelined from athletics, but after a year focusing on his studies, he was accepted at several Ivy League schools, including Yale, which he attended on a full scholarship. “Williston made a new life for me,” says Stu, now 85 and living in Sarasota, Florida. “It gave me an opportunity I otherwise wouldn’t have had.”
In return, Stu has put his efforts into advancing the school. To honor his younger brother, Douglas Thomson ’60, who died from cancer in 1984, he created the Thomson Brothers Financial Aid Fund, which supports families demonstrating financial need and students displaying athletic interest and promise. A member of the Elm Tree Society (which recognizes individuals whose legacy gifts will support Williston Northampton beyond their lifetimes), he has made plans to bequeath to Williston, for the benefit of the Thomson Brothers Fund, the 401(k) retirement account he built over a 32-year career in sales at IBM. To expedite the Fund’s establishment, Stu has donated his required annual 401(k) distributions in recent years, which has helped bring the fund to life even earlier. Indeed, the first recipient of the Thomson Brothers Fund is attending Williston this year, thanks to Stu’s generosity. And for the past 49 years without interruption, he has made an annual gift to the school.
All of this, he explains, is because Williston proved to be a crucial turning point in his life, allowing him to develop the skills to succeed at Yale and beyond. “At Winchester High my senior year, all I had to do in English class was learn how to spell 25 words,” he recalls. “I go to Williston, and we are interpreting poems and reading Shakespeare. It was just a different world. There were only about eight of us in each class. We had a study hall every night. It was just a terrific environment, and the headmaster, Phil Stephens, was a terrific man. Williston was wonderful to me!”
Freshman year at Yale, Stu worked with the athletic trainers to rehabilitate his knee, which had required surgery. The summer before his sophomore year, he told his father he might not return to school because of the injury, but his father talked him out of that. The next day, he recalls, he got a call from the Yale coach asking him to report to practice with the team. “In the first scrimmage, the coach said, ‘Thomson, get in there—you are our quarterback,’ and about the fifth or six play, I went back to pass and my knee collapsed. I ended up in the hospital, and that was it for my athletic career. But Yale was great to me, as they kept me on full scholarship.” He graduated with a degree in economics.
After six months in the Army, Stu joined IBM in 1959 and soon proved to be an outstanding salesman and manager. Over the next three decades he would work for the company as a marketing manager, branch manager, and regional manager, making over a hundred hires and bringing in millions in revenue for the company, at one point turning down a vice presidency because of the travel requirement. “I had a great career,” he says. “I was very fortunate.”
But his life was not without difficulty. His younger brother, Doug, had followed him to Williston, also as a post-graduate student. Doug earned acclaim in both football and basketball, sharing the Denman Trophy as the school’s top athlete. Also a successful salesman, Doug was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma and battled it for three and a half years before succumbing at age 43.
For his part, Stu has stayed healthy. A bachelor living in Sarasota since 1992, he had his injured knee replaced in 2014, but had to give up golf (his handicap was in the single digits), and recently has slowed down more than he would like. “I’m a spectator and not a participant anymore,” he acknowledges. He does follow the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and some NCAA football, but really loves the NHL and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Stu knows there are other young people out there with big dreams who could be transformed by Williston, as he was. That’s why he established the Thomson Brothers Financial Aid Fund. “My thinking on it is that there are certainly a lot of other really good athletes who didn’t take the right courses and probably won’t have the opportunity to go to a really good college,” he explains. “My kid brother was not only a great athlete, but he suffered a career-ending knee injury in spring practice his junior year in college. Professionally, he rose to be vice president of marketing for Guardsmark Inc. And there are kids today, I’m sure, that would like the same opportunity that my brother and I got.”