Advancement & Public Services

Erwin Thompson

Erwin Thompson

Historian, poet, novelist, philosopher, whittler and fiddler Erwin Thompson was named a “folk treasure” by Arts Across Illinois in 2005. In 2006, Thompson took up clearing brush again on the 100-acre family spread on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. In 2007, he celebrated his 92nd birthday with a partner-swinging square dance.

Thompson offers these three suggestions for longevity: 1) stay active mentally and physically, 2) practice moderation, and 3) keep good company. His daughter Janet Riehl adds that his “secret spiritual practice” is another factor for her father’s good, long life. “His kindness is one of his spiritual practices. Pop performs acts of kindness, both random and directed and sustained. He enlarges his capacity by extending himself.

”Indeed, both Thompson and his late wife, Ruth, extended themselves to Western Illinois University in 1985 by donating a block of stock to establish a student loan fund. The Court and Grace Johnston (named in honor of Ruth’s parents) Loan Fund has, since its inception, assisted nearly 750 Western Illinois University students.

The purpose of the fund is to offer interest free loans to high performing students with financial need. “The revolving loan fund concept is simple,” states Thompson. “A pot of money is invested and out of this pot loans are made, and then repaid. In this way, the pot is not diminished, as it would be if the funds were permanently disbursed in grants or gifts.”

“The revolving loan fund model is under-used in the United States,” says Janet. “In developing countries the revolving loan fund model has been used to good effect for supporting entrepreneurs in villages, and completely changing the face of commerce and opportunity there.”
“I like the spiritual principle of the revolving loan fund,” says Thompson.

“There is the giving…and the giving back. There is the sense of a common good, not only the individual benefits.” The “giving and the giving back” are ideals that have guided both Erwin and Ruth throughout their lives; principles learned from their parents and extended families, which have, in turn, been passed to their own children and community at large.

Ruth graduated from Western in 1939, the recipient of great emotional and financial support from her family. She was involved in a serious automobile accident the summer following her high school graduation. Due to her physical injuries, her whole family realized that she would be unable to compete for jobs requiring physical labor. There was very little money, but they shared what they had and did everything possible to help her complete a college education. She then taught in rural schools for $65 per month before marrying Erwin in 1942.

Thompson, raised by his three aunties in Evergreen Heights, the house his grandfather built in 1863, graduated high school with honors and was a charter member of the school’s Creative Writing Club. He served in the military from 1942 to 1945, much of it in full-fledged combat, and came out to earn $.68 per hour in 1946. Thompson spent 33½ years at the Gas Department of Union Electric, serving as Union Steward during part of his tenure there.

Ruth went on the earn her master’s degree at Washington University in St. Louis, and their three children all graduated from the college of their choice, “debt free due to our combined incomes,” said Thompson.  “The motivation for establishing the Court & Grace Johnston loan fund was to help other dedicated students who need help to complete their education. In today’s competitive world, it is more important than ever for young people to get as much education as they need to fulfill their potential place in our society.”
Ruth and Erwin Thompson honored Ruth’s parents in a most meaningful way while lending support to hundreds of Western students pursuing higher education, something Ruth’s parents had sacrificed for many years before.

“On the day we were married, Ruth asked me to promise her that our children would receive a college education,” said Thompson. “It was the only promise she asked of me, and I gave her my word.” For Erwin, it was like a second set of wedding vows, and their family life was designed around the promise of education.

“My parents were like a team of mules,” said Janet. “Two strong stubborn mules – always doing whatever they had to do to get the load over the mountain.” Janet describes family life growing up as a self enclosed economic unit; working, harvesting, gathering, and setting aside for the future. “Growing up with my parents was sort of like being in the Army: they pushed us to be all we could be. It’s what I call the ‘Thompson standard,’ something for which we always strived. It wasn’t always fun, but it led to excellence.”

According to Janet, service and lifelong learning are the core values of her father’s life. “Our home was a beehive of learning activity, and a continual transmission of culture.” In whatever projects Thompson undertakes, he brings – in Janet’s words – intensity, focus, brilliance, and dogged persistence.

Thompson earned the Combat Infantry Badge, was awarded the Purple Heart, and received the Silver Star for “gallantry in action above the call of duty” for his service in World War II. He has been writing poetry, family history, music, and lyrics for original songs for some 75 years. Thompson has documented letters for his mother, father, and extended family network, now archived at the University of Illinois and considered an invaluable resource for researchers of that time period. He has been featured on Arts Across Illinois’ TV broadcast and website, as well as the Alton, Illinois Telegraph. Thompson’s work covers his rich heritage, his sensitive response to the life experience, and his philosophy and love of life.

Lifelong learning – and teaching – resonates with all the Thompson clan. While Ruth chose the formal route, Erwin’s journey was informal. Two of the children held more conventional positions within the education field; daughter Julia was a worldclass physicist and professor while son Gary is a teacher, head of his school’s industrial arts department, and president of the teacher’s union. Youngest daughter Janet has had a less conventional approach, teaching villagers in Africa and working with other cultures upon her return to the United States.

“My wife Ruth taught in the grade school classroom for 32 years. Our son Gary and daughter Julia both were awarded “Teacher of the Year” the same year in totally different setting,” boasts Thompson.  “Our younger daughter Janet taught English as a Second Language and literature and designed literacy curricula in Africa during her five years there. I taught basic Infantry training during World War II. One of my men that I trained met me later and said: ‘Sergeant, I am alive today, because of the things you made me learn!’

However, according to Janet, “in a family of teachers, dad was the teacher of teachers.” A remarkably talented and accomplished man who lives simply but well, enjoys life and people, values learning and shares profusely. Countless individuals and causes have benefited from Thompson’s teachings and generosity of spirit. Western Illinois University is proud and honored to be counted among them, and hopes to live up to the “Thompson Standard.”



To read some of Thompson’s work and to learn of the collaboration of father and daughter, visit

Ruth Johnson Thompson earned her degree from Western in 1939. Ruth and Erwin’s son, Gary Thompson, graduated from Western Illinois University in 1968. It was here that he met his wife Patty, and 1969 graduate. The Court & Grace Johnston Loan Fund was established in 1985.