If you have ever visited or driven past the J.A. Thompson Administrative Center, or J.A. Thompson Rotary Field, or had a child who attended Thompson Elementary School, magnet, pre-school or Lifelong Learning Center, you may have wondered, “Who is this J.A. Thompson?”
Anyone who attended an Indian River County school between 1948 and 1969 would know that he was the longest continually serving school superintendent in Florida history. During his terms (plural because he was elected twice to four-year terms, then appointed as today), “Coach” Thompson oversaw major changes in the school district including construction of all the current Vero Beach area elementary schools and the high school, as well as the racial integration of the entire school system.
No one knew him better than his son, Jim Thompson, who at the age of 82, just retired after serving 30 years as an official for high school football, basketball and baseball games. “We moved to Vero in 1937 from Citrus County when he took a teaching job and also coached football and basketball.”
The elder Thompson taught for two years, then left to manage the Florida Theater before serving in the Coast Guard during World War II as a radio repairman. After the war, he returned to Vero and to his first loves, teaching and coaching. “Then,” according to Jim Thompson, “in 1948, he decided to run for school superintendent, and won.”
At that time there were three high schools in the county – Vero Beach, Fellsmere and Gifford, and each community had its own elementary school, including Wabasso and Winter Beach. Public school enrollment totaled 2,166, about ten percent of what it is today. “The school district administrative office consisted of three rooms on the second floor of the old courthouse,” says Thompson.
One of his difficult decisions was to close the Fellsmere High School. “They only had eight students in their graduating class, but it was not a
popular decision among the Fellsmere folks. In one election, there was a referendum on building a dog track in Fellsmere and it was voted down. Dad was running in that same election and came out against the dog track, so he wasn’t popular for that either.”
Only one of his re-election bids was close. “A bond issue to build a new elementary schools for the county’s growing population was on the same ballot, so he only won by a few hundred votes.”
But that bond issue shaped the school district we have today. Vero Beach had only one elementary school prior to 1957. Then that year Rosewood and Beachland schools opened. Osceola came on in 1958. “He used one architect design for all of the schools to save money. None of them were air conditioned either because people considered that a waste of money. Of course, it was added later.”
In 1959 the current administration building was built. In 1964 the current Vero Beach High School opened and in 1967, Citrus Elementary School came online. That same year, Indian River County ranked sixth in the state for the number of high school graduates continuing their education.
Gifford High School was opened in 1952 and is today the Gifford Middle School. He started the Head Start program for preschoolers during the summer for two years until it was turned over to the Economic Opportunity Council. Now it is a full-time program. Then, in 1969, his last year as superintendent, Indian River County schools were integrated.
The original Thompson Elementary School was named in his honor. It closed several years ago because of declining enrollment, then reopened as Osceola Magnet School. Jim Thompson was upset at first that his father’s namesake school would be renamed for a school he established as superintendent. But the school district administration renamed its headquarters as the J.A. Thompson Administrative Center. “I feel that is more representative of what he accomplished during his tenure. Besides his leadership, he was very friendly, outgoing, involved in the community and cared about the kids.”
Thompson says that after his Dad retired, “He worked for the Chamber of Commerce calling on new businesses and recruited quite a few students for his college alma mater, Mercer University in Atlanta.”
That was also be the college young Jim Thompson would attend after graduating with 88 other seniors from Vero Beach High School (89 in his graduating class). “There were five of us from Vero, including John Schumann and Jamie Buckingham. I roomed with John the first year. In fact, John and I went into the army together in Fort Lee, Virginia.”
After graduating from Mercer in 1954, Thompson entered the army as a second lieutenant and served from September 1954-September 1956. Then he returned to Vero and went to work as an insurance agency for Buckingham-Wheeler in downtown Vero Beach, still operating today in the same location it started back in 1920.
He also began his avocation of high school sports officiating. “I had started umpiring Little League before the service and when I returned in 1956, I refereed high school basketball. In 1957, I started baseball and in 1958, football. Bill Wodtke got me into football and we worked a lot of games together.”
Both Thompsons were close throughout their lives. One incident illustrates that closeness. “We were both Rotarians and back in 1984 I ran for County Commission but did not want to take a salary. I was going to use that money to make Dad a Paul Harris Fellow. I didn’t win, but decided to do it anyway. So the day I presented it to him, he made me a Paul Harris Fellow. Neither of us knew we were doing it for each other.”
The elder Thompson passed away in 1994 at the age of 88. “The chorus director at J.A. Thompson Elementary School wanted his students to perform at Dad’s funeral in his honor. They sang the Thompson Elementary School fight song. He would have been so proud.”
These days, Jim Thompson is president of the Buckingham-Wheeler Agency, but is thinking seriously about retirement now that he has retired from officiating. “I don’t know how I’ll spend my spare time. I’m not a fisherman. I know I’ll miss the life I’ve enjoyed all these years.”
And the community will miss the combined Thompson legacy of 77 years serving Vero Beach and Indian River County.