Frank “Buck”” Thompson

Dec. 12, 1942-Oct. 15, 2022


April 18, 2022 - 1:58 PM

Frank Thompson

Frank “Buck” Thompson was born in Tulsa, Okla., on Dec. 12, 1942, to the late Frank Wilson and Helen Daniels Thompson, life-long residents of Iola. Buck grew up on The Old Thompson Ranch off Horville Road with horses, cows, chickens and one ill-fated goat. 

In the summers, his mother would put him out, admonishing him to go find something to do, but only after cleaning out the chicken coop. As a very young boy and throughout his teen years, he roamed Spiderweb, the woods behind the farm, that backed up on Deer Creek. He looked for the Primroses and Sweet Williams to pop up, the first harbingers of spring, and searched for other flora and fauna in the fall and winter. He was always industrious and clever with his hands. As a teenager, determined to win an impromptu raft race on the Neosho River, he intricately lashed together hedge logs into a serviceable raft — or, so he thought. But, when launched, it abruptly sank in a most humiliating fashion.

Buck graduated Iola Senior High in 1960 with top honors and went to Kansas University as a Summerfield Scholar, as a National Merit Scholar and as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. On April 6, 1963, in the Danforth Chapel at Kansas University, he married Ann Curry, daughter of the late Jack and Elizabeth Curry, also long-term residents of Iola. He graduated from KU in 1964, with Highest Honors and honored as Phi Beta Kappa.

Postponing graduate studies for a year, he spent 1964-65 in Berlin, Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship from the West German Government. A condition of the grant was to travel by sea, a trip that took 11 days. Along with Ann and their infant daughter, Heather, they set sail on Aug. 22, 1964. He was one of few, if not the only, American to study at the Humboldt University in East Berlin after the Wall went up during the Cold War. The following year, he entered Harvard University’s Department of Philosophy, to begin his first PhD, which he completed in 1972. During the year 1970-71, he studied at Magdalen College in Oxford, England, on a Knox Fellowship. Again, he was accompanied by Ann, their daughter Heather and their new infant daughter, Saskia.

Upon their return to the U.S., Buck took a tenure-track position at Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind., in the Department of Philosophy. In 1977, however, he left academia and followed Ann to Detroit, Mich., where she began a law practice. In one night, a Teamster friend taught him how to drive a 16-wheeler. He was hired immediately thereafter as an over-the-road car hauler. Within the Teamsters Union, he became an activist and labor organizer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a band of working Teamsters determined to democratize the union, increase Rank and File rights to assemble and organize for reform within the union hierarchy, gain better contracts and to rid the union of the corrupt and mob-infested leadership. When his car haul company went bankrupt in 1979, he went to work as a business agent for a newly elected, TDU-backed, reform slate in Local 299, the premier Local that James Hoffa established in the ‘30s. Those times were turbulent and violent. After a year as a business agent, he returned to truck driving as a casual freight driver. Due to his history in the union as a Rank and File reformer, however, it became increasingly difficult to find work, prompting a return to academia in 1984. 

Buck was admitted to the Department of Economics, University of Michigan, where he earned his second PhD, in economics. He later joined the faculty with appointments in the Econ Department and in the Residential College. He remained in those positions until he retired in 2013. He was granted Emeritus status by the University of Michigan. Although formally retired, he continued to teach there on a course-by-course basis. 

Throughout Buck’s life and career, his personal and intellectual focus centered on political economic theory and practice, as well as on social justice and practice. His courses covered economic development, inequality, intergenerational justice, depletion of nonrenewable natural resources and philosophical questions arising in social science. He had numerous publications in both economic and philosophy journals. 

As a gifted and popular teacher, he developed innovative curricula for social theory and practice courses that were cross-listed in philosophy, sociology and political science. As an educator, he also developed enduring relationships with many former students in whom he had instilled a fervor for social and political justice and who went on to their own careers as economists, philosophers, lawyers, historians and labor organizers. 

Buck was an avid and intrepid traveler. From 1990-2015, he and Ann made 26 trips to Cuba, where he taught and lectured in Havana and Holguin, funded by grants from the Christopher Reynolds Foundation. He and Ann celebrated their 55th anniversary with friends and family in Havana. He had numerous invitations to teach and lecture at other universities as a visiting professor — Nagoya, Japan; Cape Town, South Africa; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Shanghai, China; Bengaluru India; and Athens, Greece. He was always accompanied by Ann and sometimes, his grandchildren and nephews. In 2013, he was a guest professor at Case Western University. From 2012-2018, he taught summers in the Econ and Philosophy Departments of Harvard University. He and Ann spent considerable leisure time, navigating the canals and lakes of Germany, France and Canada in boats he captained.

He possessed a dry wit and a prankster spirit. April Fool’s Day was his favorite holiday… Saran Wrap on the toilet seats, green milk for the children, and Ann’s alarm clock set an hour and a half ahead, who arrived at school to teach to find only an empty parking lot and locked doors. He was devoted to his daughters, Heather and Saskia, in whose nurture and development he was intensely involved to great effect. He taught them the value of critical thinking — to never accept what is, but what should be, and to force positive change in the world.

Right up to his death, Buck remained intellectually engaged in his scholarly and humanitarian pursuits. 

On Oct. 15, 2021, he succumbed to lung disease. He was preceded in death by his parents and his brother, Richard Brand Thompson. He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Ann Curry Thompson; his daughters, Heather Ann Thompson and Saskia LoRee Thompson; his four grandchildren, Dillon Thompson Erb, Wilder Thompson Erb, Isabel LaBarrie Thompson, and Ava Thompson Wells; his sister, Kathleen Thompson and his nephews, Justin Fellers and Judd O’Neal.

He is lovingly remembered by family, friends, colleagues and staff as warm and caring, witty and wise, generous and young at heart. 

There will be a memorial celebration on April 24, 2022, in Detroit, Mich., at the Rosedale Park Community Center where he and Ann had celebrated their 50th anniversary. His ashes will be scattered in international waters, south of Detroit. Donations in his name may be made to the Residential College, University of Michigan; or, to the Teamster Rank & File Education and Legal Defense Fund, a 501(c)(3) corporation, or to the Iola Public Library into the Frank & Helen Thompson Fund.


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