3 February 1936 – 13 August 2021
This week, we learned that Kent Thompson — novelist, editor, cyclist, master of the short-short story — had died. Kent was a writer whose curiosity appeared to know no bounds. When he lived in Fredericton, where he taught at the University of New Brunswick, he often arrived at our offices with an idea upon which to expound, a tale of his latest adventure, or a work of fiction to digest. When he left Fredericton for the wilds of Annapolis Royal, we saw him all too rarely.
The following tribute, written by his son David, captures much of the wit, enthusiasm, and intellect of this talented writer who made us laugh aloud and gasp with giddy excitement.
Friday the 13th of August 2021, marked the passing of Kent Elgin Thompson, who died peacefully in his sleep in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia after a brief illness. Kent was born with curly blond hair (to the annoyance of his older sister) the day after Groundhog Day in 1936, to parents Maurice and Clarice (née Graves) Thompson, in Waukegan, Illinois. He later returned with his parents to their familial roots in Washington County, Indiana where Kent got his first job at a haberdashery and, like every boy in Indiana, played basketball, in his case, on four teams at the same time with nary a hope of playing beyond high school because his father was too short. Upon graduation from Salem High School — and at the beginning of the end of his curly blond hair — he attended Hanover College in Hanover, Indiana (home of fictional character Woody Boyd from Cheers), which included a one-year exchange to the University of Exeter in England. It was then on to the University of Iowa for a master’s degree. He funded his education through scholarships (his report cards describe an overachiever), raising 5000 chickens in his parents’ backyard, sweeping a factory floor, and working on a small-town newspaper in Pekin, Indiana, where he covered the local stock car races and operated the linotype press. Somewhere in all of this he managed to play semi-pro baseball, which was “semi” because some of the players were paid, but he was not.
Armed with a master’s degree, he joined the United States Army before they had a chance to draft him in 1959 (he received his draft notice while on basic training). He served three years in the Counter-Intelligence Corps, starting at Fort Holabird, Maryland, where he met and married Michaele Fowler in 1960 prior to being stationed in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was most certainly accidentally placed in charge of all nuclear response in the Ohio-Indiana-Kentucky tri-state area for at least three days. Discharged as a “buck” sergeant in 1962, he started his first teaching job at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin, where he chaperoned a college ski trip that included a young Harrison Ford, who apparently remained solo throughout the trip. Not too long afterward, he won a Fulbright Scholarship to attend the University of Wales at Swansea. The doctoral research he conducted into Dylan Thomas is still widely cited (though not wisely by some of his students — always know your professor’s area of specific expertise in order to avoid mentioning it) in academic analyses.
Upon return to the United States in 1965, now Dr. Thompson took a job teaching at the Colorado Women’s College in Denver, which he did not enjoy, and so when he was offered a job in New Brunswick (which his wife had to explain to the moving company was in Canada, not New Jersey), he jumped at it, packed up his young family, and joined the wave of immigrants streaming north across the Canada-US border in the mid-1960s. He and his family jumped right into being Canadian and readily accepted that there are only three downs necessary in gridiron football. Kent even tried to teach his sons how to play hockey with a questionable degree of success. Unfortunately, despite their hoosier pedigree, neither son showed much talent for basketball.
From his arrival in 1966 until retirement in 1994, Kent was a professor at the University of New Brunswick, where he taught English Literature, Creative Writing, and Theatre. Early in his tenure at UNB, he was also the Editor (1967-71 and 1974-75) of The Fiddlehead, Canada’s oldest literary magazine, where he was noted for his promotion of young Canadian writers and Canadian literature in general. Later on, he was again promoting Canadian literature as the Canadian Exchange Writing Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1982-83. An instrumental founding member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, he was notably proud of his work in establishing the Public Lending Right. Over the years, he authored numerous works of fiction, including five novels, two books of poetry, two books of short stories, and many works for television, radio, and stage. He also edited a number of anthologies and was a jury member for several literary prizes, including grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Governor General’s Literary Awards. In his own right, he was nominated for a Stephen Leacock Award for Married Love, and he received a number of awards, including fellowships and Canada Council grants and bursaries. Known for his sense of humour, he once worked on the production of King of Kensington, and his play Kid Humley’s First Game was turned into a pilot for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In addition to his work in fiction, he published a book on cycling in the Maritimes, for which he received the Evelyn Richardson Prize for non-fiction. Active in the arts throughout his life, he was the founder and Artistic Director of the Annapolis Royal Theatre Company, which sought to develop young actors in Nova Scotia and, in conjunction with the Town of Annapolis Royal, promoted the history of the local area, notably with the play, Washing Soldiers, a collaborative effort with other local artists. His most recent publication was, “The Man Who Said No,” a biographical essay of an Annapolis Royal Loyalist.
Outside of the Arts and academia, Kent was an avid cyclist and a terrible handyman, despite his ability to name and describe the use of virtually any tool (because his father had them all). His adventures included cycling in Cuba and cycling naked down a mountain in Cape Breton (as part of a group of like-minded eccentrics). A Great Depression-era baby, the amount of money he spent in the name of frugality and finding solutions that were adequate would have made Heath Robinson and Rube Goldberg proud.
Kent is survived by his wife of 62 years, Michaele (née Fowler), his sons Kevin (Francine) and David (Ann Marie), his sister Joan Vickers (Hugh), his sister-in-law, Honey Fowler and his grandchildren: Kate, Meghan, Liam, and Duncan. At his request, there will be no funeral, but a celebration of life is being planned for a later date. His body has been donated to Dalhousie University for the advancement of science. In lieu of flowers, a donation to any literary or cycling charity would be much appreciated. He will be sorely missed by his friends and family, but by his chickens not at all, for they have all been eaten.