Features

Catching Up With … Bob Thompson

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SALEM, Ore. – Whump! Thwack! Whump!

When school was out and summer was in, most of Bob Thompson’s friends were hanging around with … well, their friends.

But as a pre-teen growing up in Vancouver in the southwest corner of Washington, Thompson had a special friend of his own.

A wall.

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Bob Thompson won 66 singles matches
during his four years with the Falcons.

Whump! Thwack! Whump!

Yeah … a wall. Having fallen in love with the game of tennis, it was the best friend a young Bob Thompson could have. He would hit balls at it, and it would send those balls right back to him. All morning. All afternoon. Into the evening.

It never complained.  It never got tired. It never wanted to stop and do something else.

Whump! Thwack! Whump!

“I could go down there by myself – I didn’t have any friends who were players,” said Thompson, a Seattle Pacific Legends Hall of Famer who is now 68 and still plays. “I could hit against that wall as long as I wanted.

“Mom would pack a lunch, I’d hop on my bike, and would go down there until I couldn’t stand it anymore.”

While his school chums might not have noticed, a few adults eventually did. Before long, Thompson did have friends who were tennis players.

They were just older than he was.

“A lot of times, people were driving by and they would stop and say, ‘Would you like to play?’ They’d go get their racket and come back, and I would get these pick-up games.”

It wasn’t long before Thompson moved way beyond “pick-up games.” He went on to play in three consecutive state tournaments for Hudson’s Bay High School in Vancouver, Wash. He had full-ride scholarship offers from Oregon State and the University of Portland, even signing a letter of intent with the Beavers.

But Seattle Pacific – whose last name at that time was still “College” – was where Thompson wanted to go.

“I had an older brother and sister who graduated from there. They were nine or 10 years older than I was, and we would go up to see them,” he said. “That was a pretty fantastic place as far as I was concerned.”

The days of Whump! Thwack! Whump! against that lonely wall were far behind him.

The best days of his career were right in front.

GETTING HOOKED ON A HABIT – BUT A GOOD ONE
In the mid 1950s, advertising on the still relatively new medium of television included tobacco products. Not only was such advertising legal then (it isn’t now), smoking was considered somewhat fashionable.

6261Thompson recalls he was age 9, maybe 10, when one such commercial came onto the screen. He had no interest in the product being pitched (“It was an ad for KOOLs,” he recalled), but something else did catch his eye.

“It had tennis players in the background,” he said. “There were these two people who were rallying. I said, ‘Man, that looks like fun.’

“So I asked my dad about it. He had played as a kid. Where I lived at the time, I was in bicycling distance of three cement tennis courts, and connected to them was the big wall.”

That wall was actually the side of a building. But over time, it helped Thompson develop his accuracy – because an inaccurate shot meant some extra work.

“If I missed, the ball would roll across three courts, and I had to go get it. That was a real pain,” he said with a laugh. “I think it developed my style. I was very accurate. I hardly ever beat myself by making mistakes. I made somebody have to beat me.”

NOT MANY DID BEAT HIM
Thompson was practicing with the high school players before he even got to high school. Then, as he moved through his years at Hudson’s Bay, he started getting the better of some Division I recruits.

That led to the scholarship offers from Oregon State and Portland. Much as he wanted to come to Seattle Pacific, no tennis scholarships were available. So he made the decision to become a Beaver.

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Doubles partner Will Look (L), coach Wes Lindgren
and Thompson get together on the day Thompson
joined the Falcon Legends Hall of Fame.

But SPC coach Wes Lindgren – also a Falcons Hall of Famer – made it known that Thompson was a terrific prospect. Eventually, an alum stepped up to fund a scholarship.

“At the last minute, I got a call, and Wes said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a scholarship.’ I said, ‘Hey, sign me up,'” Thompson said. “I called the OSU coach and told him I wasn’t coming. It was the best decision I could have made at the time.”

From practically his first serve, Thompson played in the No. 1 singles position, and went on to win 66 of his 86 career matches. He reached the Division II quarterfinals during his senior season in 1969 and earned All-American status.

GOING AGAINST GORMAN
Thompson got several opportunities to take the court against Tom Gorman, then starring at Seattle University. Gorman would go on to become a local tennis icon, enjoying a fine career as a professional and developing a reputation for his good sportsmanship as well as his world-class talent.

Given the close proximity of the two schools, one might think that a nice rivalry developed between them. But Thompson laughed as he set that record straight.

6262“I’m not sure “rivalry” is a fair word. He was way better than I was,” Thompson said. “I pushed him. My claim to fame with Tom is I’m the only guy who got a set off of him. After we played one time, he heard we were going to California for regionals, so he and another guy volunteered to come across town to practice with us and help us get ready. He’s a great guy.”

Thompson also built a 56-23 record in doubles, reaching the national quarterfinals in 1969 with partner Wilbert Look, all while earning his undergrad degree in business and economics.

“I was more of a doubles player in high school, so I had already had the doubles instincts. It didn’t take us long to adjust to each other,” Look said. “I just kind of defended my side, and Bob did all the rest. He’s deceptively quick. He didn’t hit the ball hard, but he knew where to put it. He moved the ball around – hitting short, hitting deep, hitting angles.”

EVEN WHILE WORKING, NEVER STOPPED PLAYING
Thompson went on to get his MBA from Portland State and had his sights set on law school. But during a year off “to make some money because I’d been in school for 18 straight years,” his father invited him to take a sales job with a grape juice company in the south central Washington town of Grandview.

Law school never happened. Thompson stayed 11 years with the company, steadily moving up the ladder. Then, he went on to become president and CEO of The Dalles Cherry Growers in Oregon, spending 20 years in that business.

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When he’s not on the court, Thompson
enjoys going for a ride on his Harley.

Not one to sit idly in retirement, he also helped put together a shopping center, and now has been involved with the Union Gospel Mission in Salem, serving on its board and even stepping in as interim CEO for five months.

And tennis?

Thompson certainly didn’t play quite as often as he did while at Seattle Pacific, but he did keep playing. Furthermore, he played well enough to be ranked at the top of his Pacific Northwest USTA age group (which goes up in five-year increments) all the way to 60 when he had to cut back on singles because of his knee replacement.

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He also enjoys golf, and is seen
here with son Jason at historic
St Andrews Old Course in Scotland.

“I play three or four times a week – I do as much as my body will allow,” said Thompson, who also golfs. “I had some great grass court tournaments when my knee was my own. I’ve been playing USTA league matches, but have been confining myself to doubles. I may go back and play some singles when I hit 70 in two years.”

He has seen the game change markedly.

“There are more winners hit now with the racket technology improved, and it’s a little more of a shot-maker’s game,” said Thompson, who grew up on wood rackets. “I’ve adapted somewhat to that.”

But steady-as-he-goes is still in style on his side of the net.

“Because I spent so much time hitting against that wall, I learned to hit the ball accurately,” he said. “My goal was to make sure I could hit the ball correctly to keep it going.”

For the better part of six decades, Bob Thompson has done exactly that.

Whump! Thwack! Whump!