A&M-Central Texas recognizes legacy alumni from ATU’s first graduating class
Special to Leader-Press
John Thomson, by his own description, grew up “a poor farm kid” in Dalton, Mass. But, even though more than six decades have come and gone, he still remembers the first time he heard about the development of the first Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator, then known as ENIAC.
“It was then that I knew I wanted to somehow be involved in the world of electronics rather than labor on a farm or in a factory,” he said. “From that moment on, I would go to the local library to read Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines.”
In this small, rural-industrial town of 22 square miles, best known for the surrounding luminous beauty of the Berkshires, twin mountains to the north and west, and eponymous waterfalls, brooks, rivers and tributaries, John knew that the world was a big place, full of endless possibilities. He just didn’t know yet how much he would see and how much he would accomplish.
It was the summer of 1961. He had just been laid off as a mill worker, and oddly, he didn’t experience any of the sadness or disorientation that normally comes with job loss.
“The Berlin Wall was being built,” he said. “I was in the Army Reserves, and I knew that the tensions in that part of the world were going to trigger an activation. So, I enlisted.”
For the next 10 years, Thomson served as an Intelligence Analyst, stationed in Germany from 1961 to 1965, Korea from 1967 to 1968, and Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. And, by the time he was 28 years old, he was a husband and a father, with a wife and two tiny children.
Like so many other soldiers, he had “taken courses here and there,” but putting the degree together while on duty proved to be a challenge. Back in the day, he observed, there were not the conveniences of an online education. Traditional university formats didn’t work for most soldiers, managing uncertain schedules, possible deployments, and family.
Then the U.S. Army stepped in, developing the Army Schools Program, designed to provide training in disciplines advantageous to, but not available within, military service, and allowing both active enlisted and commissioned servicemen to pursue that education full-time.
Thomson recalls meeting an educational advisor who explained the program to him and encouraged him to complete the rigorous application.
“It required a series of exams and an application, but those selected were eligible to pursue their undergraduate degree full-time.”
Years passed and the possibility of opportunity faded, until one day – while at the U.S. Army Intelligence School, Fort Huachuca, Ariz. – Thomson received a phone call that would change the trajectory of his life.
His application – now more than two years old – had been approved. He was reassigned full-time to Central Texas College. It was there he would meet Professor Roy S. Ellzey, Chairman of the Computer Science Department at American Technological University.
“I knew I had made the right decision when I met Professor Ellzey,” he said, his voice trembling with nostalgia. “He demanded so much from us, but he knew so much, and we learned so much.”
“My wife thought I was crazy,” he laughed, remembering the stress of coursework, rigorous assignments, and late nights spend learning one coding language after another.
“We supported each other through it. We couldn’t afford to lose anyone or let anyone fail because the university had strict requirements for class sizes. So, if 12 of us began in a course, we had to make sure 12 of us finished, so we could go on to the next semester and eventually finish.”
After graduating from American Technological University as a member of Phi Theta Kappa in 1974, Thomson was reclassified as a senior systems analyst for the AG Branch. Two years later, he was promoted to Master Sergeant, reclassified as a senior logistics supervisor for the Quartermaster Branch and, in 1976, he earned his graduate degree in computer science.
Selected for the Sergeants Major Academy in 1979, and an inevitable promotion to Command Sergeant Major, Thomson considered his options carefully, knowing that staying in service would mean an additional five year commitment. And what he really wanted was to exercise his skills in the private sector.
He was, by then, 39 and a long way from Dalton, Mass.
He outlined his experience after leaving military services, including teaching at Central Texas College, retiring a second time from what he calls “a fairly ordinary career” with a number of companies, and then again from Blue Cross Blue Shield in 1995.
As with so many retirees, Thomson considered each retirement as a professional “reset” of a sort, choosing after the third retirement to take on a position as a 13-state regional technical manager at Computer Associates where he remained until 1998 when he began his own lucrative product specific technical consulting company until 2001.
But there is a moment he cherishes more than the others: He had crossed the stage at ATU’s graduation – the first class of graduates – and, after receiving his degree, he saw his son, John, -- light up with pride at the sight of his father’s accomplishment and exclaim, “Dad, I’m going to go to college, too!”
While it’s certainly not unusual for a son to aspire to walk in his father’s footsteps, the elder Mr. Thomson admitted that he’d spent some quiet time lately, hoping that his decision to reach for a degree somehow influenced his son’s life for the better.
His son, Maj. Gen. John Thomson III, now serves at Ft. Hood as U.S. Army Deputy Commanding General for III Corps. And he agrees that it did.
And, in an event that placed a flourish on the arc of family history, Maj. Gen. Thomson visited A&M-Central Texas last Thursday to accept special recognition for his father: A Legacy Alumni Certificate.
He remembers the original graduation moment as his father does, and now 43 years later, both have a new memory and the same sense of shared gratitude and appreciation.
“My Dad says that his is the best thing that has happened to him in 30 years,” Thomson said, as he accepted the certificate from A&M-Central Texas President, Marc Nigliazzo. “He is thrilled to be a part of the A&M-Central Texas legacy.”