Late NIU advisor preached truth, accountability
DeKALB – Journalists throughout the state have slowly gotten the news that Jerry Thompson died last week.
“Most every Illinois newsroom has somebody who was taught by Jerry,” said the Maria Krull, who took over as the Northern Star’s business adviser during the 80’s, shortly after Thompson had sued Northern Illinois University to keep his job, on grounds of his First Amendment rights.
Thompson, somewhat appropriately, died Election Day, Nov. 6, after a long bout with cancer. He served as the adviser of NIU’s student newspaper, the Northern Star, from 1971 to 1995. He insisted there be no obit, no funerals or visitations, commemorating his departure from this world.
“That was his wish,” Krull said. “That’s Jerry for you. He was a very unique person. He didn’t like all the pomp and circumstance. He didn’t want any fuss over him.”
Thompson sued the university when then-President Clyde Wingfiled tried to remove Thompson from his post, citing the First Amendment.
Longtime NIU Sports Information Director Mike Korcek said such a message sent to Thompson’s students at that time is loud and clear today.
“When you have the president taking away press credentials … I’m a big believer in the First Amendment, and Jerry was, too,” Korcek said. “He fought for the truth.”
Korcek said housing costs were exorbitant when Wingfield arrived in DeKalb, and that the moment Thompson told his staff to address any semblance of malfeasance, his job was in jeopardy.
“You see this all the time, that a college paper will do something, and the next thing you see is some adviser is removed by someone who doesn’t want the truth being made public,” Korcek said.
Although Thompson considered the sports section “the toy department,” as Korcek recounted, Thompson was a springboard for promising sports writers into high-profile news jobs.
Mark Brown, a columnist at the Sun-Times, was a sports editor while Thompson oversaw the Northern Star.
“He saw something in me of more writing sports stories the rest of my life,” Brown said. “Jerry was the big influence in my career. He always told us we were in the business of telling the truth, and that’s absolutely how I’ve pursued my career.”
Tom McNamee, editorial page editor at the Sun-Times, said Thompson was a collector of semi-lost students, who weren’t sure where their career path should lead.
“He taught us to be excited about things; to care; to do a job with integrity; to be utterly unimpressed with authority and power,” McNamee wrote on his Facebook page Election Day, hours after Thompson died. “The university administration often saw him as the enemy because he encouraged us to question them as fully and skeptically as we would any cheap politician.”
He and Korcek both mentioned the amount of commiserating, brainstorming and source-scraping done at Twins Tavern, 1028 S. Fourth St.
“Jerry and I would go to the Twin, have a couple of beers, and he’d ask me what the real story was,” Korcek said. “Jerry was always looking for a story, and he was always standing up for the little guy, what is right, and the First Amendment.”
Krull was hired shortly after Thompson’s lawsuit played out. She admired him for his vigilance.
“Even though I deal mostly with the business side, you learn a lot about newspapers,” she said. “Everything I learned, I learned from him – especially the First Amendment.”
As many have voiced in the wake of Thompson’s death, he could be a tough cookie to crack.
“Sometimes, he was a little difficult, but he was special in a million ways,” she said.
McNamee’s Facebook post drove that point home.
“I learned journalism from Jerry, though he wasn’t on the faculty,” he wrote. “I learned more about how to go at life.”