Friday, August 28, 2009

One more round for the Good Old Days

An Oklahoma family visits the final Thompson Memorial

Express Staff Writer

(Editor's note: With the 33-year success of the Danny Thompson Memorial golf tournament in raising well over $10 million for leukemia and cancer research, it's hard to believe that organizers considered bagging the whole concept 22 years ago, just after the tournament went over the $1 million mark in fundraising. It was hard work for a small number of people to keep it going. And one of those main people, Idaho's Ralph Harding, let it be known at the 1987 tournament that he wouldn't do it anymore. He invited the entire Danny Thompson family to Sun Valley for what he thought would be the final tournament. The Idaho Mountain Express took the opportunity to interview Thompson's widow, Jo Thompson, and published the following story in its Sept. 3, 1987 edition. Fortunately, the tournament continued and Thompson's oldest daughter, Tracy Thompson Mickle, serves on its the board of directors. A graduate of Tulane University, she now works as a financial analyst at the District of Columbia Hospital Association. She tracks health care financial indicators for the district's 18 hospitals and develops health care policy for uninsured patients).

This isn't a story about you and it isn't a story about me.

It isn't a celebrity rehash about Julius Erving, Maurice Lucas or Clint Eastwood. It isn't a rags-to-riches story about a big-shot politician or a big-bucks businessman.

What you'll find in these columns is a story about a wide-eyed couple from Oklahoma, Danny and Jo Thompson, and their bittersweet voyage from a high school dance to a big league stadium.

It's a tale of glittering promise, dashed hopes, of endings and beginnings. It's a love story tarnished and polished by time. It's a journey from life to death, and back to life again.

It's a story of healing.

Let's take one final look at the Danny Thompson Memorial golf tournament.

Let's look under the surface of a tournament gracefully put to sleep last weekend at Sun Valley and Elkhorn in full view of over 300 shocked guests and one mighty pleased family from Oklahoma.

In the future they may have a late August celebrity golf tournament at Sun Valley so they don't disappoint the people who have been faithfully teeing it up for charity in the Idaho mountains since 1977.

But, if co-organizer and driving force Ralph Harding has his way, they'll never again have a Danny Thompson tournament. In his mind the tournament has run its course and fulfilled its mission.

And that's just fine with the Thompson clan from Oklahoma, who Harding made sure to invite as special guests to last weekend's 11th annual and presumably the final Thompson Memorial golf tournament.

It's okay with Danny's wife Jo, and his two daughters. They are grateful for the good things of the past and undemanding of the future.

No gripes are emanating from the University of Minnesota Leukemia Research Fund and Mountain States Tumor Institute of Boise, which have benefited by over a total $1 million since 1977 from the generous sponsors of the Thompson tournament.

The Thompson tournament is history. It was a resounding success. Life goes on.

Put on your western clothes and dancing shoes. We're traveling to Trail Creek Cabin and going back in time.

We're going on a little trip with Danny and Jo Thompson.

How it all started

The moon was a sliver but floodlights cut through the darkness Saturday night on the Trail Creek Cabin grounds.

In the bandshell, a country band enticed dancers to the floor. The golfers and party-goers sipped their drinks, laughed in groups and clutched their golf equipment prizes as they circled the sizzling bonfire on their social rounds.

I came to the party late.

Like the others, I'd been told it was the last Thompson barbecue. The previous evening at the tournament banquet, Harding had unexpectedly announced that he was quitting the tournament. The response was a collective groan.

No one believed him except those who had seen Harding survive the monumental nuts-and-bolts task of putting together the tournament for a full decade and more.

Harding explained that the logistics of arranging transportation and luring celebrities to isolated Sun Valley without the luxury of having appearance fees in the tournament budget had grown too complicated, too unwieldy and too draining.

Over 11 years Harding and co-organizer Harmon Killebrew had arrived at a nice round figure, over $1 million raised for leukemia research. They had accomplished much. It was time to move on.

Harding and Killebrew started the tournament in 1977, when they were business partners in Boise. The tournament was born nine months after Danny Thompson died of leukemia at the age of 29.

Utility infielder Thompson had been a teammate of Hall of Famer Killebrew on the Minnesota Twins major league baseball team. Thompson's three-year struggle with the disease had touched all of baseball. His fight was inspirational. He played big league baseball until only months before his death.

Harding and Killebrew had jumped on the opportunity to honor Thompson with the first Sun Valley clambake in 1977. Subsequently Harding, a former Second District U.S. Congressman from Idaho, had moved his place of business from Idaho to Washington, D.C.

But they continued doing the tournament at the end of August each year. Harding, even at some distance, increasingly bore the burden of organizing the tournament. The Thompson grew more popular—all berths, over 200, were filled in its final years.

Many Augusts passed. And the flame finally blew out.

That night at Trail Creek Cabin, Thompson guest celebrity Julius Erving "Dr. J" was only a slam-dunk away but the great basketball player was nowhere in my thoughts as I made my way through the happy crowd at the cabin.

My purpose was to pay my respects to Danny Thompson's mom, Margaret. I'd met Margaret and her late husband Jim eight years ago at a Thompson Memorial cocktail party in Sun Valley. They were as nice as they could be.

I also wanted to meet Danny's wife Jo and their teenage daughters, Tracy and Dana. Jo had attended only the first tournament, in 1977, but had been reluctant to return since.

I wondered why.

It wasn't hard to find the Thompsons—Ralph Harding was chatting with the Thompson clan. While I waited my turn, I tried to imagine the part of the country where Danny's family came from.

That was the tiny farm town of Capron, Okla. That's not far east of the Dust Bowl, not far west of Osage and 10 miles south of nowhere in Kansas.

Smaller than Carey, Idaho, Capron is a dot on the map in the little-noticed wash of the Cimarron River. Cherokee is the big town, 50 miles away, and that's about as big as Ketchum.

No wonder Danny Leon Thompson was born up the highway at Wichita, Kansas on Feb. 1, 1947. No wonder he was the star athlete in high school, playing everything in season. No wonder his small-town upbringing made him a team player instead of a prima donna.

I shook Margaret Thompson's hand and said it was nice to see her again. She introduced me to a host of Thompson relatives who had gladly made the long trip from the 100-degree temperatures of the Central Plains to the cool nights of the Idaho mountains.

Danny Thompson's brother Monty was there. So was a sister-in-law, and a sister and brother-in-law. They made a Farm Belt circle around me. In the rapid-fire introductions, I apologized for not getting all the names and relations right.

I mussed the hair of a young boy, Danny's nephew, who everybody said looked exactly like Danny. I said it too, and the boy beamed. "Very few make the big leagues like your uncle," I said. We nodded all around.

Finally the talk wore down and I said I had to be going, but I did want to say hello to Jo, wherever she was. Monty pointed across the way, over by the Ervings and Lucases and the other celebrities.

Sure enough there she was, a tall, smiling woman—apparently more worldly than our dirt-road delegation. Jo looked our way. Politely, she separated herself from a group and came over to where we were.

I knew two things about her.

First, she went back to school in the big city after Danny's death. I'd also been told Jo hadn't returned to the tournament in 10 years because she had felt a little out of place.

My first impression was she had been hardened by life and would be unreceptive to my questions. I was wrong.

She talked about her experience of going back to school and getting a degree in social work. For the last three years they had been living full time in Chicago. Jo was working with troubled adolescents. Her daughters Tracy, 17, and Dana, 14, were growing up normally.

Jo spoke easily. It was her own life, now.

I asked her how she and Danny met.

She said she was a farm girl, living down the road from Capron in an equally small town named Burlington. They'd met when they were 16 years old at a sock hop after a basketball game. Danny was the star basketball player. They met. They married.

Jo spoke shyly. She was about my age, close to 40, but her mannerisms grew younger by the minute as she told the tale of her youth, their youth.

They went to school over at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, where Danny spent three years and became an All-American shortstop. Danny was 21 when the Minnesota Twins drafted him in June 1968. He decided to forego his senior year at Stillwater and try for the big time.

Danny and Jo packed their bags and never really unpacked.

St. Cloud, Minnesota in the Northern League was the big time. Danny led the lower minor league in total bases, batted. 282 and was named the league's Most Valuable Player in the idyllic 63 games of the 1968 season.

Uprooted to Charlotte, N.C. in the Southern League for the 1969 season, Danny batted over .300 for the only time in his nine-year professional career even though he was on the disabled list for two months. Things were looking up.

With first daughter Tracy on the way in 1970, Danny started the season in the American Association upper minor league at Evansville, Indiana.

Once summer arrived they called him up to the Minnesota Twins. In the heat of the pennant race Danny played 96 games for a Twins club that made it all the way to the American League Championship Series.

The Thompson family had made it, too. And the next three years were a time of relative stability.

In 1972 Danny played his only full year as the Twins shortstop, batting .276 with 158 hits. The next year daughter Dana came along. But the other news wasn't encouraging.

Before the 1973 season a routine physical showed Danny was suffering from chronic granulocytic leukemia. Because the ailment was discovered in its early stages, doctors were optimistic it was controllable and confident it wouldn't prevent Danny from continuing his baseball career.

Refusing special treatment from his baseball bosses and maintaining to the very end his fighting spirit and character, Danny agreed to undergo new treatment for the disease.

It was nightmarish, leaving scars the size of half dollars.

Jo suffered quietly. They had been so close to their objectives. Now, with two young children, fate had dealt the couple a cruel blow.

She recalled driving alone with the children back from the south during a treacherous ice storm in 1975—when their dreams were tumbling down—and being so shaken by an anxiety attack that Tracy, then five years old, would remember the experience 12 years later.

With leukemia scarring his skin and lowering his stamina, one last push enabled Danny to bat .270 in 112 games for Minnesota in 1975.

Then, after being traded to the Texas Rangers in June of 1976—putting him closer to his boyhood home in Oklahoma—Danny went 4-for-4 in his first game and received a thunderous, standing ovation from the Rangers faithful in Arlington.

Six months later he was gone.

Not long after that Harding and Killebrew started the tournament, and Jo attended. But it was too difficult to handle—too soon after the fact. She needed to start her own life.

Why had she returned this year?

It was partly nostalgia, to see some old and familiar faces. It was partly because Ralph Harding had asked, and he was a very convincing man. But mostly it was because of the timing.

Jo said, "It was time to come back. The girls are big enough. I felt it was important for them to see first hand what kind of regard people had for their father.

"It helps us remember things. I was surprised Tracy remembered about the way I was in that ice storm, but she came out and said it, right here in Sun Valley, and we both remembered."

She paused and summed up, "You know, most people live their lives quietly, even mundanely, going about their business in their own way and never getting to sample what we sampled."

By this time the entire Thompson clan was intently watching Jo relate her experiences to me in these stories, as if it was the first time they had heard Jo talk about it so freely.

Danny's mother Margaret reached over, touched Jo's arm and said, "You were courageous, doing all that."

What was it like, I asked, traveling from town to town in the minor leagues?

Jo's face brightened, shedding years. She might have been 16 again, on the night of the big sock hop.

She said, "We never stayed in one place for more than four months. Had this pickup with a camper shell on it. We kept everything in these two boxes, covered with blankets. The dog always knew when it was time to go."

Jo shoved her hands in the back pockets of her jeans and smiled a great, half-moon smile, "Those were the good old days!" she said.

And you could tell when she said it, she treasured them for what they were, and knew with all the wisdom of the years that they would never return.

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