Dr. James Thompson finally gets that PhD

In October 2021, the Iguana ran a moving testimonial to James Thompson following his untimely death. What follows, written by his brother John, relates the moving and profound awarding to James his posthumous doctorate at the UF graduation ceremony in December.

by John Thompson

My late brother James Thompson left something undone. He ran a race with a fierce pace, but then stopped at the finish line and refused to cross. There are stories we craft to protect ourselves. They are grand stories, some that even elevate us around those that admire and love us. Woven in the fabric seamlessly, they become badges.

James was a PhD candidate at the University of Florida in the late ’90s and early ’00s. For reasons equal parts personal and political, James never paid UF a technical fee to file his dissertation and receive his diploma. After James’s death in August, it was decided by his friends, family, and former advisers that he should receive, posthumously, the diploma he had earned while he was living. At the ceremony, I would walk the stage on his behalf.   

His adviser, Dr. McMahon, who traveled from California to walk the stage and hood me, offered, as we sat down, that James was his brightest student. 

I said he had such creativity in the way he read and spoke about text. He added that James was an amazing teacher too, that he connected with the undergrads as a TA, and inspired them with his love of history. He said James could have easily had a career as a historian. 

James went as far as defending his dissertation to his committee, and passed. I have the paper with all the signatures. I remember that night because he called me with such elation. 

I was so proud of him, so proud of all the obstacles he conquered to rise to that point. It inspired me to know that two white trash South Texas boys could make something of themselves despite coming from a broken home. So it came as a big shock when he refused to pay a few more fees to receive his PhD. 

He spoke of his disdain for academia and the unfairness of having to pay more money for something he had already achieved. And he may have been partly right. This was the myth.

Years later my brother lived with me for a spell, and I asked him if he could still receive the accolade. I even offered to pay for it. I thought if I could get him across that line, then he’d see his opportunities were limitless. 

He understood and appreciated my offer, and then spoke the bedrock truth — he lived with a numbing fear of success. Genius comes with blind spots.

James spent the rest of his days using his wonderful mind and his endless heart to fight for social justice. He ran local campaigns for county seats and school boards, wrote text for new laws that would be passed and copied by other municipalities, organized regular everyday working folk on issues that affect all. 

You name it in politics in Gainesville, Alachua County, Florida – and James’s fingerprint was on it. You’d probably never find his name listed as a campaign manager or as a candidate. I think he held a seat for a hot second on a Democrat party committee (although he hated being called a Democrat). 

He refused to be paid for his work. It was about making the world a better place, especially for the kids.

He was always pushing other people across finish lines. So in December, I pushed him across his finish line. In the way that he carried people, I carried him. So put some respect on his name — James Thompson, PhD.

On the following day, we carried James one more time, spreading his ashes on the lake where we laid our mother’s remains decades ago. It was a wonderful, honest sharing of how much we loved and miss James. 

It was also a reminder that the void his absence left must be filled by our actions in daily life. 

We carry the fire.

“You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher.”
– Biko, Peter Gabriel   

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