Kenneth Thompson, longtime Miller Center director, dies at age 91


Kenneth Thompson, esteemed educator and longtime director of the Miller Center, died Saturday, Feb. 2 at age 91.

Thompson served as the Miller Center’s director for two decades, bringing many of the Center’s initiatives to prominence during his tenure. “The Miller Center would not be what it is today without the inspiration and passion of Ken Thomspon,” said former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, director and CEO of the Miller Center, in a press release.

Thompson was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1921. He graduated from Augustana College in 1943 and served in the U.S. Army Infantry and in counter intelligence during World War II. Following the war, he earned a graduate degree from the University of Chicago.

He began his teaching career at the University of Chicago and then Northwestern, where he served as Chairman of the International Relations Committee. From 1953 to 1974, Thompson left his role as a university educator to work for The Rockefeller Foundation, ultimately serving as its Vice President of International Programs. In 1975, Thompson returned to teaching as a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University, and he became director of the Miller Center in 1978.

His son James Thompson, senior vice president at the University of Rochester, said education was one of his father’s greatest passions. “In my household when I was growing up, the greatest thing you could say about a person was that [he or she] was a great teacher,” James Thompson said. “In some small way, he wanted to be able to do that for others.”

Under Thompson’s direction, the Miller Center established the Forum Program, the Presidential Oral History Program and the national commissions. He worked to advance the understanding of the American presidency and civic education both inside and outside of the classroom during his tenure.

“Whether it was somebody working at a service station or the secretary of state … asking him about politics my father would take equal patience and equal attention with it, because he really felt that was the future of the country,” James Thompson said.

Thompson also authored more than 30 books about international affairs, diplomatic ethics and the American presidency.

“Ken initiated much of the work that continues to this day,” Baliles said. “Because of him, presidential history that might otherwise have been lost will be preserved for generations to come.”

After retiring as director of center in 1998, Thompson continued to lead the Forum Program until 2004.

“He was probably the hardest working person I ever knew,” James Thompson said. “He always told me somebody is always going to be smarter, somebody is always going to be better looking … but nobody has to work harder than you do.”

Thompson is survived by his three sons, stepdaughter and four grandchildren. The Miller Center is expected to set a date for a memorial service later this week.

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