A Wonderful Life
A Personal Tribute to Jack Thompson
By Rev Dr Jim Campbell
“When I think of my life I cry, not because of sadness or regret, but because of joy – I’ve had such a wonderful life”
A few weeks ago my wife, Ruth and I went over to Edinburgh to visit Jack and Phyllis at the Marie Curie Hospice – both of them critically ill. When I sat down beside Jack, almost his first words were; “When I think of my life I cry, not because of sadness or regret, but because of joy – I’ve had such a wonderful life”
Those words brought tears to my eyes – here was my dear friend –disabled, diseased, in discomfort, dying – and what feeling was filling his heart – gratitude!
Gratitude to God for a wonderful life! What did Jack think was wonderful?
He thought that of his early years
Life began for Jack in 1943 on the Shankill Road in Belfast – a solid working class area of the city, not one of its leafy suburbs. He was blessed by having good parents, he had a wonderful sister, Dorothy. He went to a good primary school; he belonged to a terrific church – Townsend Street congregation. He gained a place at Methodist College Belfast, one of Northern Ireland’s leading grammar schools. He made the most of every opportunity. He saw it all as a wonderful start to life.
He went to Queen’s University Belfast where he read history and at the same time studied for a Diploma in Theology. After graduation he obtained a post teaching History and RE at Regent House School in Newtownards. He married Phyllis Wright and at much the same time was ordained to the eldership in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland where, for a while, he was the youngest elder in the denomination.
However, the horizon of Jack’s interest was not the coast of Ireland nor indeed the needs of the PCI. God had given him a great gift- the ability to communicate clearly and concisely – and he felt compelled to use that gift to help those with less opportunities in life than the grammar school pupils whom he was teaching. Jack decided to apply to his church for missionary service overseas. However, he didn’t want to be a missionary in the narrow sense of that word – he regarded himself as first and foremost a Christian teacher who used his God given talents, wherever he was, to serve his pupils. He saw his mission not just as something that was carried out through church or missionary society, but something that happened through every aspect of his life.
He and Phyllis were appointed for overseas service by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and after a time at St Colm’s College he was posted to Livingstonia Secondary School, Malawi.
What did Jack think was wonderful in life? Nothing compared with his years in Malawi!
In the 1970s Livingstonia was a fairly isolated mission station in the hills of Northern Malawi. In addition to Malawian colleagues, there was a little expatriate community of a dozen or more people, mostly fairly young and most of them teaching at the Secondary School. Jack was the star teacher. I can still see his neat writing on the blackboard and maybe five or six sentences setting out clearly the core of some complex issue. His students regularly got top marks in national examinations and many went on to do well at University.
But it wasn’t all work. Jack coached the school football team and retained his interest in running. Many of the locals were fascinated to see this white man, this wasungu, as we were called, jogging round the boundaries of the mission station in shorts and vest. Jack and the rest of us also had time for expeditions through the bush and trips down the steep escarpment to visit Lake Malawi.
Jack had an inquisitive mind and a love of history and he developed an interest in two particular aspects of Malawian history – the role of Africans in bringing Christianity to Malawi and the methods of pioneer missionary, Donald Fraser. The latter topic became the subject of his PhD at Edinburgh University which was awarded in 1980 for his thesis, “Fraser and the Ngoni”. It was later published under the title, “Christianity in Northern Malawi”.
After completing his PhD Jack, Phyllis and family were posted to Blantyre, in Southern Malawi where he took charge of TEEM (Theological Education by Extension, Malawi), which provided in-service courses for church leaders of all denominations in the country. Again he did a wonderful job.
However if you were to ask Jack what gave him most satisfaction in Blantyre – what was wonderful about his time there -he would probably say it was not teaching but running. Jack was a keen long distance runner. (By the way, when Jack talked about long distance he meant long distance. I remember how he marked his 50th birthday by doing a sponsored 50 kilometre run around Birmingham. His son Mark and I were the back-up team! )
It was while he was at Methodist College that he discovered he could out run the other boys in his form. He continued his athletic career with the university harriers at Queen’s and afterwards was in charge of running at Regent House School. When Jack came to Blantyre in 1980 the St Andrews Running Club had just collapsed. He decided to form a new long distance running club. He was fortunate to get to join him Matthew Kabale, an outstanding distance runner, who represented Malawi at two Olympic Games and one Commonwealth Games. They called their group the Camba Road Running Club (a camba is a tortoise). Others soon joined the club.
Jack was able to train those runners to international standard and indeed he was appointed Honorary Coach to the Malawi National Marathon Team. It was a matter of immense pride to him that he was able to give them a sense of dignity and self-confidence on the international stage. When I was speaking to him a few weeks ago he mentioned this as one of the most worth -while things he did in Malawi.
One of the things that made life good for Jack after his time in Malawi, was that he was able to continue his interest in African History and his academic research, first at the Centre for New Religious Movements, Selly Oak Colleges Birmingham and then at the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World at Edinburgh University. He developed an international reputation as a historian of African Christianity with particular expertise in the history of the growth of Christianity in Malawi. He was the author of various books, contributing to many other publications and delivered many papers on African and Missiological topics at International Conferences around the world. In Edinburgh, in addition to a full teaching schedule, he supervised students working for higher degrees played a full part in the School of Divinity and in the wider life of the University.
In wider society he was very active in the establishment of the Scottish Malawi Partnership in 2004 and in its subsequent development, particularly its academic exchange programme. Also he retained his links with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and was often consulted on its work in Africa and contributed to various consultations and conferences there. Over the years he retained ecumenical contacts with the United Reformed Church, the Council of Churches in Britain and Ireland and the British and Irish Association for Mission Studies.
Life was good for Jack because in every phase of life and through every aspect of his work he managed to draw to himself a wide circle of loyal friends. There was just something about his personality that was magnetic. He had friends from every strata of society and every corner of the world. A look at his Visitors Book shows the wide range of people who were entertained in his home.
When I visited him recently he showed me a book, “Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion”, which he had just received from Barbara Bompani, Director of the Centre for African Studies at Edinburgh University. On the fly leaf she had written, “The kindest and most inspirational of supervisors”. In those words she had captured the essence of Jack’s success as a teacher and supervisor. He was not only kind to his students but inspirational. He was a great motivator of others whether they were school children or athletes, graduate students or academics.
I want to finish by saying a few words about what I believe caused immense satisfaction to Jack – his family. He was supremely proud of Jenny and Mark and talked of them often and with great pride. He had a deep affection for his grandchildren. He always was concerned for the well-being of his late sister, Dorothy’s, children – Rhoda, Deborah and Christopher.
There was another member of the family that most people are unaware of – Jack and Phyllis’ first child was born in Ireland during the early years of their marriage. Sadly, that little girl lived for only a few hours. She is buried at Newtownards in Ireland. He did not want her forgotten and we want to acknowledge her in this tribute and give thanks for her brief life.
Most of all Jack was very conscious that he had a wonderful life because of Phyllis. They met in their teenage years. They shared a common commitment to Christ and his Church. They had a common goal in life but had their own interests and opinions. They didn’t always agree but the underlying love and loyalty was rock solid.
Jack was very conscious that he was only able to pursue his interests and conduct his research because Phyllis was there caring for the home, looking after the children, hosting the friends that Jack would sometimes invite back home with him. Also, Phyllis, who was a top class secretary did much of the typing involved in preparing various papers Jack authored including typing his entire PhD thesis. In the Acknowledgments in the thesis he writes, “I owe a great deal to my wife Phyllis.. for enduring and supporting that most selfish of beings –the research student.” He was very conscious that his work had placed demands on her and it was because of her that he had able to achieve his goals.
He was proud of Phyllis – her commitment to the Church – at Wooley Hill, Birmingham and at St Andrew and St George’s West in Edinburgh. He was delighted at her involvement with Christian Aid and her enthusiastic work for the Child Survival in Malawi Project.
Jack and I had a long session at the Marie Curie Hospice a few weeks ago talking about his life and work. When we came to the end of our conversation he summed it all up by saying to me –
Phyllis was the quiet strength behind it all – The oak to my willow.
Next day before I set out to return to Belfast, I went to say my final goodbye to Jack. We both knew we would never meet again in this world. I wrote out on a little card some words written by the Apostle Paul just before his death, to his companion Timothy. They pictured for me Jack’s life and where he was that morning.
Second Timothy 4 at verse 6: “The time is here for me to leave this life. I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance and I have kept the faith. Now there is waiting for me the victory prize of being put right with God which the Lord, the Righteous judge, will give me on that day”.
For me there was Jack!
The last lap took a little longer than we expected that day. It was a very difficult lap. Jack crossed the finishing line on Thursday, 10th August 2017. He had done his best in the race. He had run the full distance. He had kept the faith. It was a wonderful life.
We thank God today for the life of Jack Thompson.
11th August 2017