We meet earlier this week in an empty office in the President’s Office. He comes in a tailored suit, complete with purple tie, setting down a slim black folder on the desk. I am told his time is short, but that doesn’t stop Western Chancellor John Thompson from directing me toward a small meeting table in the corner of the room.
“Let’s sit down and do this right.”
The retired executive vice-chairman of the board of IBM – where he had oversight responsibility for worldwide technology, manufacturing and business strategy – wraps up his four-year term as chancellor this month.
A graduate of Western (Engineering Science), Thompson also completed executive management programs at the university and the Kellogg Graduate School of Business at Northwestern University. Western awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Laws in 1994.
Thompson spent a few moments looking back on his time as the university’s chancellor, the honorary and symbolic head of the university.
Western News: You earned a degree from Western in the 1960s, received an honorary degree in the 1990s, and are now completing your term as the university’s chancellor in the 2010s. Is it like you’ve come full circle in your time at Western?
John Thompson: I think you stay involved in the university, when you’ve been involved as long as I have, in some way or another, whether it’s fundraising or it’s giving, opening doors or whatever it is. Amit (Chakma) said with the increased number of convocations we now do, it’s probably unreasonable to expect the chancellor to attend every single one, so he’s thinking of creating a chancellor emeritus, so that he can call on an old chancellor when a new chancellor can’t.
WN: So, want to be the first?
JT: You’ll have to ask Amit and see what he thinks (laughing).
WN: You’ve now led more than 50 convocation ceremonies in your time as chancellor …
JT: Really? I hadn’t counted.
WN: And I’ve been at each of those and I see you’re always smiling. You must have had a good time doing this?
JT: It’s all about the grads. They’re so happy with their families there. They’re smiling. There’s such an excitement that goes on. It’s an upbeat time and it’s contagious. I like doing it and love seeing the kids and their enthusiasm. It’s just an uplifting job.
WN: Speaking of the students, you have chatted with thousands of them as they are hooded during convocation. During those brief 5 to 10 seconds of talking, have you had some fun conversations with them?
JT: I’ve had a few fun ones. I remember early on, it was at fall convocation, and a lady graduating said, ‘Chancellor, I’ve got this Thanksgiving turkey in the oven and all my friends are coming over and I promised them the chancellor is coming for dinner, you have to come.’ I said that’s a very kind invitation, but I can’t do that, I have to go to Gibbons (Lodge, the long-time residence of Western’s presidents and their families) for a dinner for our honorary degree recipient. She said, ‘I won’t take no for an answer, so here’s my address to where the party is.’
I didn’t go of course, because it’s not appropriate.
From time-to-time, I stay at the Station Park Inn and at times I’ll go out for a coffee or something like that, and I’ll walk by around 9 p.m., and there’s always a bunch of students outside at the Ceeps. They’ll say, ‘Hey, Chance, come over here and have a beer.
‘You know, I’m tempted because I flash back to my days as a student, but I never do cause I know better. (Laughing.)
One of the great things about being chancellor is also meeting all the honorary degree recipients – authors, business people, scientists. I get to learn a lot. It’s just another thing that makes being chancellor fun.
WN: The hope is when our graduates leave Western they will continue that connection with the university and return at various stages and be involved. But that’s not always the case. But with you, you’ve continued that relationship for almost five decades. What is it about Western for you?
JT: It’s part of your stage of life. When you’ve been a CEO for most of your life and you’ve worked 24/7, you want to keep busy after you retire. But you don’t want that same pressure of running a business. So you look for things that you can participate in. Most of us don’t want to go to the beach or the golf course, but we’ve got to stay active and want to give back somewhere.
… Giving back is important and being chancellor is probably one of the better jobs you can get in that way. As the ceremonial head for the university you’re always at happy events, positive celebrations. You don’t have to deal with all the issues of the day. …
WN: Convocation is about to end, and with that your term as chancellor comes to a close. I imagine this is not the end. Is it safe to say we’ll still see John Thompson around campus every now and then?
JT: I’ll do what the university wants. I’ll be around if Amit wants me for any reason. I act as a little bit of a mentor for him in a sort of penalty-free environment where he can test his ideas before he throws them to Senate or the Board (of Governors). I’ll stay in touch to the extent that he needs me in the future. Or for Joe Rotman (Western’s new chancellor who begins this fall), I’ll be around.
WN: Speaking of Mr. Rotman, is there any advice you can pass along to him before he takes over as chancellor this fall?
JT: He’ll be a very good chancellor. He went to Western and has a spot in his heart for it. He’s a great philanthropist and knows a lot of people at all levels – business, government, higher education, whatever. I think he’ll be a very good ambassador. I’ve talked to him about it on several occasions and he’s excited and looking forward to it.