When Timothy Thompson, an 18-year-old from Ashland, Oregon, was chosen by LIFE Magazine to have his first semester at Yale chronicled, a massive challenge lay before him. Not only did he have to adapt to the school academically and socially, he had to do so while a reporter and photographer followed him around campus, capturing each awkward moment, for nine weeks.
Thompson was the subject of a recent repost, in which we dug up his lengthy profile in the January 8, 1965 issue of LIFE. A reader later left a comment showing what became of Thompson after college, then another reader found his obituary (Thompson died in 2004 at age 58).
In the obituary I noticed that his sister, Ardith Da Costa, lives in Petaluma, California, 40 miles north of San Francisco and right next to my hometown. I telephoned her, and Mrs. Da Costa was happy to talk to me about her brother and how the LIFE feature came about.
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IS: How was your brother chosen by LIFE?
ADC: There were 250-500 Yale prospects LIFE was considering. They whittled it down to five pretty quickly, and the reporter Donald Jackson seemed to have a good rapport with Tim. That was probably the final determination.
IS: How did Tim get into Yale?
ADC: He was salutatorian in his class and was accepted to Yale, Penn State and another East Coast school. He had the marks and was well rounded, having been active in sports and band. And he got an academic scholarship, since there was no way we could afford it; he came from a pretty simple lifestyle and there were four kids.
IS: When he came home for Christmas, what did he tell you about his first semester?
ADC: One of the vivid experiences he shared was about him coming from a public school and immersing with East Coast kids from prep schools, who had had a whole different experience both academically and socially.
IS: After the story came out, did Tim become the big man on campus?
ADC: In the big picture, with the number of academically gifted kids there, when it came out he probably fleetingly stood out for 24 hours.
IS: The story is called “Freshman Blues,” and it certainly shows Tim’s struggles. It also makes the reader cheer for him to succeed. Was he pleased with how it came out?
ADC: Yes, he felt they portrayed his experience accurately.
IS: Tell us about his military service.
ADC: Tim was in ROTC, and he was drafted his senior year to serve in the Vietnam War. Because he knew Latin and French, the Army had a special assignment for him, and he worked in Army Intelligence. He never spoke about what he did while serving.
IS: How would you characterize Tim as a person?
ADC: He was definitely warm and caring. If someone needed something, he’d be there in a heartbeat. He had a good sense of humor, and was very determined. And he was very outgoing and well liked. His freshman roommates became lifelong friends. He gave a lot back to Yale, and yet as much as he liked living on the East Coast he still had his friends from where we grew up. He managed to keep his connections diverse, and really valued his contacts, family and friends from all his different stages of life.
— CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD