Frank Thompson, 1942-2021

Against the Current, No. 224, May/June 2023

Dianne Feeley

FRANK THOMPSON, LONGTIME socialist activist and scholar, succumbed to lung disease on October 15, 2021. Throughout his adult life he focused on social justice issues, both in his labor activism and in his teaching.

He encouraged students, including his daughters Heather Ann Thompson and Saskia Thompson, to probe beneath the surface of society to discover its systematic inequality. His dry wit, interest in philosophical debates, generosity and internationalism were all central to his personality.

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on December 12, 1942 and raised on The Old Thompson Ranch in Iola, Kansas, Frank was an industrious farmer’s son and a top performer in school. He was a National Merit Scholar, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar and graduated from Kansas University with Highest Honors and Phi Bet Kappa.

Before he’d graduated from Kansas University, he and Ann Curry, childhood friends, married and started their family. Over the years Ann was able to complete law school.

The family of three went off to Humboldt University in East Berlin. Later he studied at Magdalen College in Oxford. By 1972 Frank received his first Ph.D. from Harvard in philosophy. There he was influenced by his radical thesis adviser Hilary Putnam.

Offered a tenure-track position at Indiana University in 1972, he and his family moved to Bloomington. There he met Milton Fisk, who had been teaching in the philosophy department since 1966. Already a member of the International Socialists, Milton discussed socialist politics with Frank.

As their collaboration deepened, Frank was won over to the IS “socialism from below” perspective. They both were internationalists who enjoyed engaging students and colleagues in a variety of social justice issues.

Beyond politics, the two shared a love of the outdoors. Both had young families, both were doers as well as thinkers. Growing up on a ranch, Frank had taken care of animals; Milton was a skilled carpenter.

While Fisk remained in Bloomington, within five years Frank and Ann decided to move to Detroit where they could participate more directly in the rank-and-file labor rebellion gaining steam.

As a lawyer, Ann Curry Thompson was able to work on labor compensation cases by day and aid the growing rank-and-file Teamster caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), when needed.

Frank learned how to drive a 18-wheeler and was hired as an over-the-road car hauler. He was active in TDU’s campaigns to increase members’ democratic rights and rid the union of its mob-invested leadership.

But the industry was changing and within a few years Frank’s company went bankrupt. The reform-backed slate in his local, Local 299 — which Jimmy Hoffa had founded in the 1930s — won office and Frank became a business agent for carhaulers. After a year he returned to truck driving, working as a casual freight driver until he reached a dead end. The he returned to academic life.

Teacher, Organizer, Activist

In the fall of 1984, Frank was admitted to the Department of Economics at the University of Michigan, where he earned his second PhD. The following year he became a teaching assistant; from 1990 to 2017 he was a lecturer in both its economics department and Residential College.

Frank joked many times that he was the only person in the country with two PhDs and a commercial driver’s license. Probably a safe bet.

Alan Wald, a friend, comrade and ATC editor commented:

“Frank imparted an admirably soft-spoken kind of Marxist thought in his conversation, teaching, and writing. But the life he led was one that challenged many of us to think about socialist politics as a complete and integrated way of being and acting. With his peripatetic and unconventional career — from Harvard to TDU to the RC — Frank set a high bar for what an activist-scholar should be. And his extensive travels to several continents and enjoyment of his family showed that one could still have a good time with friends and loved ones while working for utopia.”

When the International Socialists merged into Solidarity in 1986, Frank became a founding member. He remained an active recruiter to labor and socialist activism.

Solidarity members at the university gravitated, as others, to his classes; he organized particular classes on Marxism at their request and mentored many. He also encouraged students to attend various political events and even served as part of the defense guard when Noam Chomsky spoke in Detroit.

Over the years Frank encouraged students interested in rank-and-file organizing to consider interning at the TDU office and for Labor Notes. He and Ann also opened their home to interns who needed a place to stay.

Frank was also active in Union for Radical Political Economics and contributed to URPE’s annual summer programs for many years. He developed an innovative curriculum that combined philosophy, sociology and economics and was a visiting professor in Cuba, Japan, South Africa, Argentina, China, India and Greece. He enjoyed taking Ann and other family members along with him to these countries while also maintaining friendships with former students.

Although Frank was primarily a teacher and organizer, he wrote several book chapters, articles and reviews, particularly for The Review of Radical Economics and ATC.

Frank and Ann closely followed the work and lives of their children. Their older daughter Heather is a historian who wrote Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City and Blood in the Water the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, which earned her a Pulitzer Prize. Their younger daughter Saskia has been an urban planner in several U.S. cities, including Detroit.

Intellectually engaged until his death, Frank had friends all over the world. He is survived by his wife Ann Curry Thompson, his daughters, his sister Kathleen Thompson and four grandchildren. Donations in his name can be sent to the Teamster Rank & File Education and Legal Defense Foundation.

May-June 2023, AT 224

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