Thompson: How a small-town character made the big time
Prominence followed colorful, conflicted teens
(Remind me never to run for office if they dig up old yearbook pictures!)
The Latin teacher at Lawrence County High School had a warning for Bob Buckner’s mother: Your son is hanging around with that troublemaker Freddie Thompson.
With his cutup personality, Freddie was a persistent disrupter of Miss Desda Garner’s ninth-grade Latin class — and Bob, the teacher warned, was his cohort.
“Mom told me I was going to be forbidden to associate with him,” Buckner told The Tennessean. “That was when we were freshmen. It went downhill from there.”
The life of the man now known as Fred Thompson has twisted and turned like the country roads of the rural Lawrence County where he grew up: a used-car salesman’s son, a kid who by all accounts was an unimpressive student and who married before he graduated from high school after getting his girlfriend pregnant, but who followed the winding road to Nashville, the U.S. Capitol, Hollywood and now, possibly, the White House.
In sleepy Lawrenceburg, few claim to have predicted the fame and stature that lay ahead of him. They remember Freddie as the class clown — he was likable and smart, though not studious.
They also say he matured quickly and deeply after becoming a young husband and father. They describe him as a genuine and decent man with a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
“He had a way of making you like what he was saying even if you didn’t agree with him at first,” said childhood friend Jan Clifton, gesturing toward a lamppost on the square. “He had a way, if I didn’t think I could climb that pole, of convincing me I could do it.”
As for the presidency, Lawrenceburg folks think this is Fred’s right time.
“He comes across as so sincere,” said Tommy Beurlein, one of Thompson’s high school classmates. “He’s not trying to answer some way to be popular at the minute.”
Humor ‘runs in family’
Before he was on Law & Order, before he drove a red pickup truck to a seat in the U.S. Senate, before his 6-foot-5 frame graced movie screens, Fred Thompson was most well-known for his ability to get a laugh.
“Everybody’s got a Fred Thompson story that went to school with him,” said Anne Morrow, a cousin who is curator of the local Crockett Theater arts center. “He majored in ‘people’ in school, not necessarily the curriculum.”
He drew a caricature of a substitute teacher on the blackboard before class began and left it there for the teacher to see, Buckner said.
During football practice, the lanky lineman persuaded a team trainer to go to a store and get him a Coke, a coach recalled.
Thompson and Buckner left campus so often and misbehaved so often that the principal created a special, separate study hall area just for the two of them — one accessible only by going through his office.
“Freddie was a character,” said Marie Barber, a neighbor and family friend who had two daughters around Thompson’s age. “I’m not going to tell you some of things he did. He teased the girls, and they fussed at him, naturally.”
But she said Thompson was a “good boy” whom she never knew to smoke or drink.
“Everyone called him ‘Moose,’ ” said her daughter Ann Barber Webb, a Thompson classmate. “He was real funny. It runs in the family. His dad was that way.”
Thompson’s former coach Garner Ezell, who attended First Street Church of Christ with Thompson’s family, remembered a football game in which the youngster was injured and lay at midfield.
“When the coaches got to him, he said, ‘How’s the crowd taking it?’ ” the coach said. “He was smart, but he was lazy. He probably could have been a straight-A student if he’d applied himself.”
He had ‘ideal childhood’
Fred Dalton Thompson was born Aug. 19, 1942, in Sheffield, Ala. When he was still young, the family moved across the state line to Lawrenceburg.
The square in Lawrenceburg is relatively quiet today, inhabited by an array of antique shops, a clothing store, a museum to Southern gospel music, a bank and a Christian bookstore.
But when Thompson was growing up, it was a thriving commercial center, with active movie theaters, a department store, banks, restaurants — a hub of activity centered on the county courthouse, which is no longer there.
The Thompson family — parents Fletcher and Ruth, sons Fred and Kenny — grew up in a one-story home within walking distance of the square, and which still stands. School was just blocks away, as was Blair’s grocery, a small corner store that took credit and delivered orders in the neighborhood. Fred’s grandparents ran a diner just off the square.
“Fred had such good parents, and I had such good parents,” Clifton said. “We had such an ideal childhood, and we didn’t really even know it.”
Through a spokesman, Thompson declined to be interviewed for this series of profiles. But there’s no shortage of people in Lawrenceburg who remember him.
As a teen, Thompson was “a typical late-’50s small-town American kid,” Beurlein said. “He loved to have a good time. Fred was a cutup. I can’t think of many people in the class who weren’t. You were worried about putting gas in Daddy’s car for Friday night.”
In the Class of 1960’s senior yearbook, his picture bore the caption “Freddie Dalton Thompson.” Printed with it was this saying: “The lazier a man is, the more he plans to do tomorrow.”
He draws town’s censure
Sarah Lindsey was sweet, pretty and smart. Her family owned a plant that made pews and other church furniture. Her uncle was a lawyer.
She was a grade ahead of Thompson. Sometime in high school, they started dating. Some couldn’t see them as a match — Sarah the good girl, Freddie the clown. Buckner said he and his girlfriend regularly double-dated with them. (Lindsey, now Sarah Knes trick, did not return a phone call seeking an interview.)
Sometime between their junior year and early senior year, Thompson came to Buckner one day: “He said ‘Bob, Sarah is pregnant and I’m going to marry her.’ ”
Buckner said he was floored and suggested he and his friend hit the road to escape. But Thompson was ready to face his new responsibility, Buckner said. Early in their senior year the couple married — Buckner was best man. The newlyweds moved in with Lindsey’s parents.
The town didn’t like what Thompson had done to one of its upstanding daughters.
“I could not have endured the criticism he had to go through,” Buckner said. “The censure he experienced, the ridicule he endured. I admired him for it.”
According to Buckner and other Thompson friends and acquaintances, the future senator’s marriage to Lindsey and entry into her family changed Thompson, gave him direction and placed him on a more serious path.
“Fred obviously is a smart person,” said Buckner, who now lives in Memphis. “That would have come out in some way. He might have been the best car salesman in West Tennessee. But the notion of going to law school, going to college? The seed, if it was there, grew after that.”
He makes the grade
Despite the marriage and family, Thompson stayed in school and graduated with his high school class in 1960. The couple would divorce in the 1980s.
Both Fred and Sarah Thompson started college at what is now the University of North Alabama before transferring to the then-Memphis State University, where they graduated — with two children by then, and another to come a year later.
Upon graduation, Thompson planned to attend Vanderbilt Law School. But he needed recommendation letters, and he turned to Buckner’s mother, a Vanderbilt graduate.
As an English teacher at Lawrence County High, Eleanor Buckner remembered her former student Freddie Thompson — the misbehaving student, smart but never applying himself. Bob Buckner recalls his mother being torn about whether to write a letter on Thompson’s behalf.
But Freddie was all grown up by then. He went to see Mrs. Buckner, and convinced her his change was genuine. She wrote the letter.
Vanderbilt accepted him, and in 1967 he graduated from its law school. He passed the bar exam the same year, and returned to Lawrenceburg to begin practicing with his wife’s uncle.
He gets political
Buckner recalled only one time when his friend showed an inkling of a political position. It was sometime after high school, in the mid-1960s, when union unrest at the Murray Ohio bicycle plant had reached a fever pitch. An electrical transformer was said to have been shot out, and union sympathizers were suspected.
An anti-union gathering was called, and Thompson showed up at Buckner’s home, asking to borrow a handgun. He returned the gun unused.
After law school, sometime around the late 1960s, Thompson became politically active. His friend Tom Crews, a longtime local educator, remembered a Republican gathering at the courthouse around 1969 or ’70. Thompson “all of sudden walked in” and asked whether the county had a Young Republicans group.
“Don’t you think we need one?” Thompson asked. “He said, ‘Why don’t you and I undertake this?’ ”
But in the first meeting of the Young Republicans of Lawrence County, it was clear that Thompson was the leader, Crews said.
He had a charisma that people followed. Though his father had once run unsuccessfully for local office as a Democrat, Thompson would get a seat on the county’s Republican Executive Committee. That gave him entrée to statewide party leaders, according to a biography of Tennessee senators co-authored by Thompson’s former colleague Bill Frist. Those GOP luminaries included U.S. Sen. Howard Baker.
He enters national stage
Those political contacts helped him land a job in Nashville as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Nixon administration. In 1972, he directed Baker’s re-election campaign in Middle Tennessee.
The powerful East Tennessee senator reciprocated by summoning Thompson to Washington the next year to serve as minority counsel on the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal.
After they graduated, Ann Barber Webb lost track of Freddie Thompson, the boy she recalls sleeping through class. She moved to northern Alabama and started a family. One day in the early 1970s she caught a little television — “the Watergate thing” — as she rocked one of her babies to sleep.
And that’s when she found him again.
“I said, ‘Oh, there’s Freddie Thompson.’ I didn’t know he was a big-time lawyer. I didn’t know he had made it so good. I was tickled for him.”
During that time, Fletcher Thompson is said to have called up to Washington, looking for his son, according to Crews and Ezell.
“I want to speak to Freddie,” the elder Thompson told the secretary.
“You mean Mr. Thompson?” the woman asked.
“No, I want to speak to Freddie. I’m Mr. Thompson.”
Fletcher Thompson didn’t recognize it, but the rest of the world was quickly learning that Lawrenceburg’s little Freddie Thompson was a character of the past. Fred Dalton Thompson had entered the national stage.