LARAMIE (AP) — Friends describe the late Tommy Thompson as the “perfect unsung ambassador” for the University of Wyoming, a man with a warm and infectious smile and a dedicated employee who worked hard to beautify his campus.
“What made Tommy such an institution at (UW) was that everyone knew (him) — 33 years of students, faculty, staff, campus visitors and most of the Laramie community at large,” friend and cousin Dan Nelson writes of Thompson.
“Not everyone knew him by name, but his presence on campus was unmistakable.”
“He could see into you,” friend Pennie Espeland said. “He knew if you were in need and he didn’t even have to ask. Even though he didn’t have a lot, he made sure if a person was in need they had help from him.
“The thing about him? Once you got to know him . you just wanted to look good in his eyes.”
Thompson, a 1958 UW graduate in range management, began working in university greenhouses in 1960.
He worked his way up to greenhouse supervisor and floriculturist, before retiring in 1993.
He died in 2010, at 74 years old.
The “Friends of Tommy” committee formed shortly after his passing and committed to honoring the late “green thumb and warm heart.”
That effort is coming close to completion.
This fall, tentatively scheduled for early September, “Friends of Tommy” will place a bronze, approximately 600-pound sculpture of Thompson that’s roughly one-quarter larger than life-sized in the flower gardens south of Merica Hall.
The sculpture is a creation by Wyoming artist Vince Valdez.
“It’s going to be very emotional,” Espeland tells the Laramie Boomerang. “It’s such a good likeness and it’s such an important story to honor people who give so much more to campus than they ever really get recognized for. It’s to honor them, it’s to honor Tommy and his role on that campus and in our community.”
“I think there will be real pride that it’s there and it’s complete,” Nelson said.
“It honors all the staff and service workers on campus, but also this really, really special and unique individual.”
One of the traits Thompson’s friends said they admired most about him was how he overcame physical limitations.
He was born in 1935 with cerebral palsy, but Nelson said he developed into a “self-reliant and confident person with a radiant, outgoing personality.”
Thompson, a Laramie native, had an interest in landscaping and gardening early in life.
As a 14-year-old, he began watering and mowing Undine and Washington parks.
He was hired to work in UW greenhouses after graduating from college. His passion for his craft made an impression, Nelson said.
“Who could not fail to see this man, who obviously had significant physical limitations, giving his all to beautifying the campus he loved so much,” Nelson writes. “Often on his hands and knees with difficulty, he was seen alongside his summer helpers planting those thousands of young flowers, and later alongside them, watering and weeding.
“For years, the UW campus has had the reputation as one of the most beautiful in the entire country.”
“Tommy taught more from that sidewalk than most professors taught from their classroom,” Espeland said. “He taught people life skills and acceptance and understanding of someone’s adversity.”
Since forming, “Friends of Tommy” has worked to raise $40,000 to cover costs of the sculpture project.
Thanks to more than 130 donors from across the U.S., the group has raised about $30,000, or 75 percent of its goal. Contributions may be given either through UW’s online website or through the UW Foundation.
The garden where the sculpture will go was a favorite of Thompson’s, Nelson said.
“He called (the garden) his artist’s palette,” he said.
“It was a real mixture of things, a cacophony of colors. He loved that place. . It couldn’t be more perfect.”
Nelson said the garden sculpture is a fitting tribute to UW’s “unsung ambassador.”
“What these thousands of people who were affected by Tommy Thompson always saw was a huge, unforgettable smile, a nod, a wave and a greeting,” he writes in a packet of information about the project.
“His unaffected friendliness and it being so genuine brightened the days of countless people for a third of a century.”