Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Who is Erwin A. Thompson?

My father Erwin A. Thompson turns 95 this November 9, 2010. He's had quite a life. Here are some highlights from his life of character and contribution. Make sure to read "The Second Mile Award," and "What is the second mile?"

HOW A FOLK TREASURE WAS RAISED

In 2005, Erwin Thompson was named a “folk Treasure” by Arts across Illinois (a prime time art magazine TV series produced by WTTW11 in Chicago). Five years later Mr.Thompson continues to be recognized as a Riverbend Treasure by the many people whose lives he has touched.

Mr. Thompson is a historian, poet, novelist, philosopher, whittler and fiddler. He has lived most of his life at Evergreen Heights, the family homestead originally founded by his Grandfather, E.A. Riehl. Mr. Thompson continues to live in the house his grandfather built in 1864 since he was 9 months old. Here, he and his wife Ruth Johnston Thompson raised three children: Julia, Gary and Janet.

At his birth both Mother (Anna Riehl) and baby were weak. The doctor thought both would die if the mother had the strain of caring for her infant. He thought the mother had a greater chance of surviving if Erwin were sent down to the Riehl farm. Erwin was not expected to live—but, he did!

Because of the Great Depression and the demands on the Thompson family, Erwin was raised by his grandparents and three aunts: Emma, Judy, Emma, and Amelia (Mim).

A WRITING LIFE BEGINS IN THE MOST UNUSUAL SETTING

Erwin graduated from Alton High School with honors and as a charter member of the school’s Creative Writing Club. Erwin met his future wife Ruth Johnston when he sat behind her in study hall (Room 217) and pulled her hair to get her attention. They married 10 years later in June 1942. Their union would last 64 years until Ruth’s passing in 2006. Erwin says “It was the most intelligent thing I ever did when I married that particular girl at that particular time.”

Drafted into the army in 1942, Erwin did his basic training in Camp Robinson, Arkansas. He then became part of the training cadre in the same company. In June 1943 the unit was transferred to Camp Fannin, Texas.

In July 1944, Erwin, now Sergeant Thompson, was shipped overseas leaving Ruth and their one- year-old daughter, Julia, behind. That November of ’44, Erwin and two comrades were sent on a reconnaissance mission near Stolberg, Germany. Their job actually was to act as bait to draw out enemy troops. One man was killed and Erwin and his other comrade were severely wounded and barely escaped with their lives.

Due to the severity of his injuries, Erwin subsequently spent three months recovering in a British Hospital. Confined to a wheel chair during his recovery in England, Erwin read voraciously to fill his time. The more he read, the more he started to hear his own internal muse encouraging him to put his own stories to paper. He soon found that writing his own stories was preferable to reading many of the printed ones available.

He wrote of the adventures, challenges, joys and sorrows of the world he knew—eking out a living on a Midwest farm during the depression. This world became the stage for his stories. Erwin let the other hospitalized servicemen read each new story as it was completed. The more he wrote, the more the men hounded him to complete additional chapters.

He remembers a point at which eight service men were in line waiting to read pages as fast as Erwin could write. During his time involved in the European Theater of Operation Erwin says his writing helped him keep his sanity. This work would be compiled into two manuscripts titled “The Lean Years” Book I and Book II.

Erwin was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries sustained from enemy action and a Silver Star for “Gallantry above the call of duty” and discharged in 1945 to return to the United States. He and Ruth resumed living at Evergreen Heights and Erwin took employment with Union Electric in Alton.

His writing, both poetry and prose, continued to be a passion in his life. He wrote many poems reflecting his daily life at home as well as at work.

In the preface to his poetry anthology “Worth Remembering,” he writes “When I worked for Union Electric, I saw and experienced many things that ranged from the funny to the aggravating.To express my feelings on the matter, I often wrote a poem about the incident and gave it to one of the girls who worked in the back office.

One Christmas, the girls all got together and typed them all up. They presented the collection of the poems—they had saved every one—in notebook titled “The Whittlin’ Poet.” On the cover Bill Price had painted a cartoon of Erwin sitting under a tree whittling one of his small critters.

This collection is included in Erwin’s book “Worth Remembering: The Poetry of our Heritage-A Family and Friends Poetry Anthology…and some of the History” (Erwin A. Thompson, iUniverse, Inc., New York, 2009). “Worth Remembering” also includes many of the songs Erwin wrote as he is also a musician and songwriter. In 2009 "Worth Remembering" won a Gold Medal literary award.

A LIFE IN MUSIC

Erwin’s Aunt Mim encouraged his musical talent when he was young. She was on track to be a concert violinist; however her father discouraged her pursuit of a musical career because of her “nervous disposition.” She agreed to teach Erwin how to play the violin based on two conditions: 1) He had to hold the instrument’s bow correctly as a violinist would (at the base or frog of the bow) and not “choke the bow” as a fiddler would; and 2) He must “go to play somewhere we are not.”

As a young man Erwin played music at many of the local dance halls and community events performing popular tunes, waltzes and his own original compositions. He played mostly by ear and enjoyed collaborating with both local and visiting musicians including Gabriel Smith, grandson of a founder of The Grand Old Opry.

Erwin still plays his fiddle today. You can hear Erwin’s music group play clips from forty songs (including seven of his original compositions) on the audio book “Sightlines, A Family Story in Poetry and Music.” Erwin’s music interweaves with 90 poems from “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary” written by his daughter Janet Riehl tells stories of six generations of family.

FAMILY LIFE & THE CHILDREN HE & RUTH RAISED

Erwin experienced years of great joy married to Ruth and raising their family. Their oldest daughter, Julia, a world-class physicist, worked in scientific laboratories and universities around the world including Siberia at the Russian Headquarters for science research. Tragically, Julia was killed in a car accident on August 16, 2004.

Son Gary became an Eagle Scout early on; in his adult life he keeps on earning those merit badges. Trained in Industrial Arts he headed the department at Jacksonville High School. He and his older sister Julia were named Teacher of the Year at the same time. Now retired he remains a family anchor who can put a cherry pie in the oven, go out to the barn to repair the tractor, and come back in to take the pie out of the oven and put a hearty meal on the table.

Their youngest, Janet, lived in Africa for five years. In Peace Corps she taught English as a Second Language and literature in secondary schools. Afterward as an independent volunteer funded by British Quakers she founded a village sewing center which became a vocational technical school with sites in several villages. Today, Janet is an artist and poet living in St. Louis. Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century (www.riehlife.com) is a blog-magazine dedicated to creating connections through the arts and across cultures. Her father is often featured in the Family Matters category.

At 94 Erwin continues to compose and play music, whittle a collection of critters, document family and local history, and write new novels. As ever his creative life blends with daily life as he manages the land he so dearly loves.

Erwin’s door is always open to family and friends. He hosts local musicians playing the old time music of his youth. Writing his books has been a labor of love and an offering to our community. “History belongs to everybody,” he says.

Pop in garden

Pop in the garden

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Thanks to my blogging buddy Eden Maxwell for proposing the idea of an award dedicated to my father. Click here to learn more about Eden, his artwork, and his book "An Artist Empowered" .

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