Student Advocate Orville Thompson Dies at 87

photo: man's face
Orville Thompson

One of UC Davis' leading advocates for undergraduate education, human and community development professor emeritus Orville Thompson, passed away from complications of a stroke on Friday, Oct. 6. He was 87 years old.

Services are set for 11 a.m. Oct. 18 at the Davis Community Church, 412 C St., Davis.

From 1954 until his retirement in 1988, Thompson was the model for excellence in education, whether it was for UC Davis students or the many high school students involved in agricultural education throughout the state.

He was born in the Montana prairie town of Union on Aug. 26, 1919. World War II service and the GI Bill's access to higher education were to be profound life-altering experiences for him.

Following four years of naval duty in Pacific combat zones, he returned to his home state to obtain a bachelor's degree in agricultural education in 1948 from Montana State University in Bozeman. From there, he traveled for the first time to UC Davis to obtain his master's in education in 1952.

This was followed by his doctorate degree from Cornell University in 1954 with studies in education, rural sociology and educational psychology.

He then returned to UC Davis to begin a 34-year faculty career distinguished by the many student lives he enriched as teacher, mentor and adviser, and by the creative academic programs in education and the behavioral sciences. He also enriched the state's agricultural education programs in high schools, focusing on the relationship between personal and occupational values.

Thompson lived by his belief that, "You will achieve much more in life through your influence on others than through what you do as an individual."

In 1967, with Thompson's leadership and a great deal of involvement by students, the Department of Applied Behavioral Science was formed in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. That department eventually evolved into the Department of Human and Community Development.

"His leadership helped ensure that students be given ownership of their education by self-selection of specializations within their majors," said Beth Ober, chair of the Department of Human and Community Development.

Thompson originated his department's annual field trip into San Francisco's inner city to study poverty programs, which to this day remains a popular spring-break course. He also conceptualized and directed the beginning of the Internship and Career Center.

His interests and energies were not limited to academic affairs. He was actively involved in the life of his community and its surrounding region.

He was a member of the Davis Kiwanis Club, beginning in 1958 and serving as its president in 1979. He served the city of Davis on a variety of civic committees, was foreman of the Yolo County Grand Jury in 1986-1987, was a member of the County Fair board 1980-84, and was a member and chair of the Yolo County Manpower Advisory and Planning Council 1978-83.

For many years, he chaired the Yolo County Cal Aggie Alumni Scholarship Committee, beginning in 1980. A special interest was the local chapter of his Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity, which he served as an adviser in his early years on campus and later as a lifetime member and leader of its alumni board.

In company with Erna, his wife of 60 years, the Thompsons were generous benefactors of many local nonprofit organizations, such as International House and Yolo Hospice, and also gave freely of personal service. He was an energetic and productive fund-raiser for a variety of interests, both on and off campus.

He was a leader of successful fund drives for International House and for the UC Davis Alumni and Visitors Center, in which the International Visitors Center is named for the Thompsons. The Thompsons have also established an endowment to support students in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

In 2003, the UC Davis campus expressed its respect for his distinguished service and appreciation for his generosity by giving his name to one of its new dormitories.

While he received many high awards and recognitions, his family says the most gratifying was having the students choose the Thompsons as Picnic Day Grand Marshals in 1993.

He is survived by his wife, Erna; his nephew, Tom Larson; his great-nephews, Scott Jensen and Todd Larson; and his great-niece, Mary Larson.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial gifts be made to the UC Davis Foundation for the Thompson Scholarship Fund, 1480 Drew Ave., Davis, Calif. 95618.

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