Outgoing and Determined: Remembering Tim Thompson

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.

* * *

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.


13 Comments on "Outgoing and Determined: Remembering Tim Thompson"

  1. These Tim Thompson posts have been some of my favorite here at IS…great jobs guys.

  2. Wonderful conclusion to the mystery of what became of Mr. Thompson. Thanks for sleuthing out what happened. -Aaron

  3. Nice job in tying together the LIFE story with the man as he is remembered.

  4. Was surprised and glad to see this follow-up. Great story and Tim must have been a great person to know.

  5. One of the links with the first posting for Mr. Thompson mentioned that his post-Yale Army training was at Ft. Holabird, MD which is the Army’s field intelligence – e.g., interrogation – school. His sister’s reference to his French language abilities seems to confirm that he was a field interrogator in Vietnam.

  6. I knew Tim back in the seventies, when we were house mates in the Georgetown section of Washington, D. C. Every morning, after a run through the neighborhood, Tim would fry up a couple of eggs, mix in some rice left over from the night before, open a can of sardines, and wash it all down with strong, black coffee. Tim smoked a pipe, and on Sundays he would read the New York Times. For a number of years, Tim worked for a communications consulting firm called Teleconsult, then headed by a Chinese economist by the name of Dr. Ling. The company sent him to Amman, Jordan, for a year or two. That was before he went to Wharton, where he met his wife, Linda.

    At Yale, Tim was a classmate of George W. Bush, whom he said he struck out in intramural baseball, adding that “Dubya” was bush league (just kidding). The last time I heard from Tim was around Christmas of 2003, when he sent me a letter in which he described his class reunion at the White House the previous Spring. He said the event had been planned as a Texas barbecue, but inclement weather forced the event indoors. It seemed odd, he said, to be eating barbecue on White House china. He also noted that there were portraits of all the previous first ladies hung throughout the White House, except for one in particular, who was even a graduate of Yale Law, but we needn’t mention Mrs. Clinton by name. Tim was a smart guy and a good friend.

  7. I love that we’ve learned about what happened to him after the Life article, including the interview with his sister! Although I was very sorry to hear that he died at such a young age – 58! Overall, though, this must be near the pinnacle of all Ivy Style posts.

    That issue of Life was tremendously interesting, in addition to the portrait of Tim’s first year in New Haven. There’s a prescient editorial piece titled, ‘What is our purpose in Vietnam?’ (or something similar), as well as an article on the over-scheduled, over-pressured students who were showing up at the Yale infirmary which sounded like it could have been written today instead of fifty years ago.

  8. Nice tweed.

    I knew two somewhat opposite examples, one who went from a public school in a small college town in Connecticut to Yale in the late 40s and another who did the same at Brown in the 50s from a small town in New Jersey. The former spoke of being put off by the elitism of the time and suggested he never felt comfortable there, while the latter was nearer the opposite, with a sense that the education he received certified him as a member of that elite and entitled to its privileges, which the social arrangements of his day rightly recognized (though later failed to do so, which he argued signaled a commensurate decline in quality in the government institutions he worked in.)

    Two very different responses to similar transitions. Speaking with the latter decades later, I felt I had much more in common culturally with him than most of my contemporaries decades removed. I met the former later, and held him in high esteem as well.

  9. Charlottesville | May 22, 2019 at 3:01 pm |

    I echo Paul’s thoughts. Thanks for re-posting this, Christian. I missed it the first time around. What a lovely remembrance from Mrs. Da Costa, and an unexpected and warm contribution in the comments from his former post-Yale house mate.

  10. Reading the article, it couldn’t be further from what I’ve heard from friends who did their undergrad at Yale. The saying on campus is, “the only A that matters is the A in Yale.” The previous emphasis on academic excellence appears to have been replaced by a reliance on prestige.

    Harvard and Princeton, on the other hand, continue to drive their students insane. Job well done, I guess.

  11. What an excellent story ! I would say that Tim Thompson was a smashing success and a credit to Yale indeed. Very heartwarming story.

  12. Wayne Schlegel | July 20, 2021 at 11:41 am |

    I knew Tim at Yale and am saddened to learn of his passing at such a young age. He was a kind fellow and all-around unassuming in an environment which encouraged a bit of snobbery at the time but was definitely becoming more inclusive. I, too, came from a humble background and for the first time in my life I developed a pride in my working class roots.

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