article by Barbara Leader | photography by Brad Arender
Louisiana Senator Francis Thompson’s district office is more like a museum than a traditional work space. His office is located in an original train depot, constructed in the early 1900s on the Kansas City Southern Railroad in Delhi.
After dark on a Monday night, inside the little blue depot beside the tracks, Thompson relaxes behind his desk wearing a baseball cap, shorts and a polo shirt, “I’ve been working on hydraulics,” he says by way of explanation for his appearance. He still has two appointments before heading home for the night.
Seventy-three-year-old Thompson is one of the longest serving members of the Louisiana Legislature and a fierce advocate for education, hospitals, infrastructure and equal opportunities for all in the community he represents and the state he serves.
His office is filled with mementos of a life lived full steam ahead — deer and alligator heads, train souvenirs including lanterns and step stools, countless public service awards, a pot belly stove and many photos and newspaper clippings. The floor is the original hardwood and shows signs of age. And although the depot no longer functions as it once did, the tracks are very much active.
“Let’s let that thing get on by,” Thompson says as a train barrels by on the tracks right behind where he sits at his desk. The floor shakes and the building quivers as the train makes its way past Thompson’s haven. “The horn usually blows really loud when it gets about here,” he said.
ALWAYS ON THE MOVE
Catching Thompson in his office is no easy task. He’s always on the move, attending meetings, ribbon cuttings and athletic events, traveling around his district talking to the people he’s represented as a legislator since 1975 – a job he takes very seriously.
He wakes every morning when the sun peaks through the curtains of his bedroom, starts work about 7 a.m. and finishes most every night at around 11 p.m.
He says his wife of 53 years, Marilyn, has to remind him to go to bed most nights because “after sitting in my chair for a while, watching TV and returning phone calls, I usually catch another spurt of energy about 10:30.”
THE EARLY YEARS
Thompson was born in Delhi in 1941, delivered by his grandfather, Dr. Clyde Coleman Thompson, in his home near the train depot. It was from those humble beginnings that Thompson learned some of the lessons that have shaped his personal life and his time in public service.
When he was a child, Thompson took full advantage of small town life, exploring the streets of Delhi and getting to know everyone — a skill that would serve him well in his career.
“I’d walk from right over there from a couple of blocks over and cross the railroad tracks,” Thompson said gesturing through the window of his office. “And when I was a little fellow, I’d just walk around town and visit with everybody. Now that I look at it, I bet I was kind of like Dennis the Menace, but I didn’t know it at the time.
“I called them all by their first names, just like my father did. Some around here referred to me as a street urchin, but that was part of what I called my total education experience. I not only got good teaching in school, but I also learned by working and dealing with people. I think the good things stuck with me, but I was aware that there were not just good people, but also some to be wary of, at a young age.”
PREPARING FOR A LIFE OF PUBLIC SERVICE
Part of that education came from his first job. At 13 years-old, Thompson and his two older brothers, Bobby and Clyde, opened a “fillin’ station” on US Highway 80 to help support the family of eight. During school hours, an employee ran the store, but Thompson said he would return quickly after school every day to take over and work until close.
“I remember coming back to the service station and working until after dark because I can remember goin’ in the back and feeling for the electrical wires,” he said. “It’s a wonder I wasn’t electrocuted. I’d reach up there, feel for the wire and just pull it down. They had seven or eight wires, but I knew the ones to pull down to disconnect the lights in the front and then I’d meander through the building until I got to the front door and locked it up.” Working in the station also taught Thompson some of life’s tougher lessons.
“I learned a lot about people,” he said. “I would meet people that were very kind and nice, and then I would meet people that were con artists that would try to beat me out of gas and try not to pay me, but that all worked out.”
After graduating from Delhi High School, Thompson went to Louisiana Tech University where he played baseball. “I wasn’t an outstanding ball player, but I was good at heckling the other team, ya know, I had a role to play,” Thompson said chuckling.
“My parents were educated and they impressed us with a lot of wonderful thoughts and challenged us to get a good education,” he said. “So, I never thought about not getting an education. My mother pushed us in education. I can still hear her correcting my grammar every day.”
EARNING ATTENTION FROM A LA TECH ADMINISTRATOR
“I was a good kid — well trained,” Thompson said. “My parents were good disciplinarians. My older bothers didn’t drink or smoke, so I never did have those tendencies. I was too busy doing other things. Getting into trouble wasn’t even on my radar.”
But when he was a student at Louisiana Tech University, a javelin and a bare spot on the parade ground proved to be too much temptation. “There was this boy, Joe Cage, from Monroe who was a great javelin thrower,” he said. “One day, I picked up his javelin. I said, ‘There’s nothing to throwing this. I could do it. You just have to have a little athletic talent. I haven’t even thrown a javelin and I bet I could hit that bare spot,’” Thompson said.
That might have been fine, if the boys hadn’t been inside the dorm on the third floor.
“The screen was there, but the window was up,” Thompson said. “I took that javelin and I threw it and it stuck up right there in that bare spot. I got called to the dean’s office on that. But there was no one on the parade grounds, so it wasn’t like I was going to stick somebody, but that was probably not the proper character that should be exhibited by a student.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Thompson graduated from Louisiana Tech with his undergraduate degree in Science and a Masters in Biology. He also earned a Doctorate of Education from Northeast Louisiana University.
He was a teacher and drove a school bus for Monroe City Schools and worked for a manufacturing plant in Delhi. His first elected office was to the Richland Parish School Board where he served as president.
After his tenure on the school board, Thompson was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives. “I don’t know what my life would be like without serving the community. I’ve always said that there’s nothing better than being able to give good service to the public.
“I give credit to the Lord for giving me what I really like and want and cherish. I want to do this work. I look forward to it every day. I have a new challenge every day as a legislator. And I thank the Lord that he’s given me the means to be able to do this without having to have a regular job.”
A LEGISLATOR UNDER SIX GOVERNORS
After serving nine four-year terms in the House of Representatives, Thompson was elected to the Senate for his first term. He’s remained in the Senate since then and was unopposed for another term that will begin in 2016. He and Senator John Alario are the two legislators with the most tenure in the state capitol.
Thompson has met challenges as he championed causes for his district and the state, but he’s also celebrated many successes.
“I want people to know that I’ve given my all to the people that have elected me and I’ve never been a person that just worked for the district that I was elected in,” he said. “I want to serve the whole state. I’ve got opinions and ideas and solutions for all of the areas of this state. Not that I think I have a leg up on anyone, but I do think I have something to contribute.”
During Thompson’s time in Baton Rouge he supported legislation that secured a Veteran’s Cemetery in northeastern Louisiana, constructed Poverty Point Reservoir State Park and was resulted in the recognition of Poverty Point Historical Site as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – one of only 22 in the United States.
“The designation of Poverty Point as a World Heritage site, didn’t come about by any single person, but by a lot of different people putting together a plan that was workable,” he said. “But it took a lot of hard work and dedication to accomplish that.”
Thompson has been a strong supporter of education, healthcare, agriculture, highways, economic development and law enforcement and has served as the chairman of the northeast Louisiana legislative delegation.
Outside of his legislative work, Thompson serves as an Executive Committee Member of the Southern Regional Education Board and as a member of the National Council of State Legislators, the State Agriculture and Rural Leaders Board and the Southern Legislative Council’s Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.
He attributes his political success to the support of the people that he represents.
“I try to stay in constant contact with the people in my district,” he said. “I want to stay engaged and that’s why my schedule is what it is. Everything is always a moving target. What you did last week, you can’t say you’ve got it done and stop. You’ve got to keep pushing. You’ve got to keep moving to keep things coming to our area,” he said.
RETIREMENT? NO WAY.
Thompson who has three children, nine grandchildren and three great grandchildren, says he’ll never retire and doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon.
“I’ve been blessed, my mind still works good and my body still works good,” he said. “I’ve never had anything hold me back physically and mentally. But, that’s my opinion.”
Thompson has received numerous service awards including the University of Louisiana at Monroe’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the LMA Legislator of the Year award, but there’s one thing that’s evaded him.
“If you asked me what is the one thing that you felt like that you didn’t get to do in your life that you wanted to do, I’d say ‘serving in the military.’ I really have admiration and respect for our armed services. I didn’t get to serve, because I was between the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Thank goodness there was peace or Cold War during that time. By the time they were taking people for the Vietnam War, I had two children.”
He even asked former Speaker of the House Hunt Downer to try to get him in the military as he prepared to leave for Operation Desert Storm. “This is tongue in cheek, but, I said, ‘I know I’m a little older, but if there is any way that you can get me in the military, I’ll do any job that you’ll give me.”
And he’s not given up yet.
“I’ve never found anybody who could get me in, but if you know someone, I’m still able and willing. That’s one thing I missed out on. And I regret that. I’d have been a good soldier because I’m disciplined. When I do something I dedicate myself to it. And I don’t quit until the job is done.”