Mel Thompson '68 and Sioe Thung Thompson '68

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  • Alenka Figa
    Alenka: We're ready. Go ahead.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: Okay. Well, my name is Mel Thompson. I’m here with my wife Sioe, otherwise called Weejee back when we were here, in class of ’68. I live in- we live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I’m a member of the class of ’68.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: OK, so, we walked over here to share some verbal history. I think our story is a little bit interesting, ‘cause my wife is from Indonesia and she got a full scholarship to Grinnell, sponsored by the Foxes. The Foxes were very intimately involved in Grinnell College, and Mr. Fox owned a feed company here in Iowa and was on the board of directors of Grinnell, and he was also appointed by President Kennedy to head up the USAID in Indonesia.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: And while there, Mrs. Fox taught English lessons to budding young Indonesian people and she met my wife, Sue, I call her Sue or Weejee, and during the course of the English lessons they thought it would be fitting and appropriate for her to come to Grinnell College in the center of Iowa. That’s a long way from Jakarta, Indonesia, and in 1964 it was a long plane ride, and expensive, and... Basically, she left her family behind to come here.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: So, her last name was Thung, T-H-U-N-G, and my last name is Thompson, and we met, literally, on the first day of school. It was interesting because she was from a totally different part of the world. In fact, if you get a globe out you couldn’t be farther away from Grinnell, Iowa than Jakarta, Indonesia. Anyway, so, we met. We were both science majors. Since she- last name begin with a T and mine began with a T, we were assigned alphabetically to a class in Chemistry, and we sat together, and that’s how I met my wife for the next... 40, what- 45 years, whatever it is. 44 years.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: Okay. So we- we studied Biology. She studied Biology and Chemistry and she went on and got a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Iowa, got a Master’s Degree in Biology at San Diego State. I went to medical school; I was in the first class at UCSD and got my medical degree there, and then I spent a lot of time at the University of Iowa, and then after that I went to Wisconsin where I’m practicing now as a cardiologist.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: So, we come from different cultures, different parts of the world, and we’ve had a happy marriage. We’ve got two children, and they’re doing very well, so we’re happy. It’s been a good, good 45 years. So, I come back to Grinnell. I haven’t been back for years and years and years. I can’t believe the change; a lot of new buildings, a lot of old buildings gone and sort of in memory only. I’m sort of disappointed about the Student Union, which was a gorgeous new building when I was a- in 1964. Is that right? ’64, ’65.
  • Sioe Thung Thompson & Mel Thompson
    Sioe: We graduated in '68.Mel: It’s still a gorgeous building. I think that building is a testament to good architecture. It’s a beautiful building. I understand it’s not being used for student activities though, which sort of upsets me. I guess there’s a handicapped problem getting into the building, or something. I can’t believe we can’t solve that problem.
  • Mel Thompson & Alenka Figa
    Mel: But, be that as it may, some old things, the Darby Gym is gone, replaced by this gorgeous new student center. What else have I noticed? A lot of old and new things are sort of mixed together, here. I’ve talked to a couple of students. They seem pretty sharp. I’m here with Alenka, and she hasn’t told me anything about what she’s going to be doing, but... I got- I can see-Alenka: I’m not interesting to the Oral History Project yet. I'm too young.Mel: OK, I get it.Alenka: Yeah.Mel: So, you- we’ll talk to you in the future.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: What else? I will say that I’ve had a little bit of attention with my relationship with the College. We’ve given pretty generously over the years to the College. I guess I would say that as I get older I get more and more conservative, and I think as students and universities tend to be; sometimes I don’t feel exactly comfortable. It seems like there’s a very liberal bent, especially here at Grinnell. And so it’s- I’m having a little bit of a struggle with that. But, be that as it may, I know the school’s doing a good job at educating kids and getting them out in the world and doing good things.
  • Mel Thompson & Alenka Figa & Sioe Thung Thompson
    Mel: Did you have any questions for me?Alenka: I guess- so, how have- or, I guess you said you feel like you’re getting more conservative. Do you think Grinnell is more conservative?Sioe: No. It's liberal.Mel: No, Grinnell was very conservative. It was quite con- Actually, when I was a senior the first real drug culture came to Grinnell. It was a totally different deal. It was a very traditional group in my class. The next class was...Sioe: Like, two- two, three classes after.Mel: Maybe two, one or two years later, but people in my dorm were different. There’s no question about it.
  • Alenka Figa & Sioe Thung Thompson & Mel Thompson
    Alenka: Which dorm did you live in?Sioe: Rawson.Mel: I lived in Rawson Hall. It was a small dorm, and it was a men’s dorm. It was really quite dramatic, the difference just in one or two years, and I think that probably persisted. I have to say that I was not a flower child of the sixties, even though I lived through the sixties. I was just, one or two years older than that and so I don’t really... I didn’t really identify with, you know, sort of the hippie culture and that kind of thing. I think some younger people did. So, my background’s more conservative, so I do find it a little uncomfortable. But it’s interesting, some of my classmates feel right at home here. So, I maybe have this little different view.
  • Alenka Figa & Mel Thompson & Sioe Thung Thompson
    Alenka: A lot of alumni- well, a lot, some of the alumni I’ve talked to from like '68 have talked about the like, change, or the transition that Grinnell was undergoing and they talk about it as a change that they began and then that continued into the 70s. So I guess, did you, while you were on campus, did you have a feeling that there was this sort of like, “change” occurring?Mel: Yes, definitely.Sioe: But we weren’t part of it.
  • Mel Thompson & Alenka Figa
    Mel: One of the problems, I was a pre-med student, and you had to keep your eye on the prize. There was- you had a very rigorous schedule of classes and requirements. It was, and I’m sure is, a very challenging environment and dependent upon what you choose for your, y’know, your major, it made a big difference on whether you had to time to… you know.Alenka: It's similar today.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: I think that some majors were incredibly labor intensive. I can think of one of my good friends, a guy named Mark Dabness, who subsequently died. He was a Physics/Chemistry major, and, I mean, this was high-powered effort on his part to, y'know, do the coursework. It was- Grinnell, when I was there, I’m sure it’s still true, had very high expectations of the students. And it was not a- it really wasn’t, in quotes "a party school" back then. I don’t think it is any- I don’t know what it’s like now. But, it was pretty- it was a serious place.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: Maybe I should talk a little bit about the science people that influenced me. There was a guy named Grant Gale. I guess he’s got an observatory named after him, now. He was really a great Physics teacher. He was- he had fun demonstrations. He was a regular good guy. A Biology teacher, Guillermo Mendoza, his son was in my dorm. His other son went to Grinnell and was a couple years behind us. Professor Mendoza was a- was an inspiration in Biology. He was really into his subjects. He was great with his students. He just, donated his time and effort and was just a superior teacher.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: You know, those two guys stand out. I had a science background so I spent a lot of time with them. I had... we used to talk about the- so the East Campus and the West Campus. The East Campus was more science, the West Campus was Philosophy, Religion, Social Studies and there wasn’t all that much mixing between the two sides of the campus.
  • Alenka Figa & Mel Thompson
    Alenka: Sorry, could you-? We, because of the different dorms, East Campus and West campus I guess mean different things to me so can you clarify kind of what you mean?Mel: Well, the- back then the women lived in the- in the east dorms and the men lived in the west dorms. But, the campus was also split a little bit based on the Science building and the Social Sciences buildings.Alenka: Okay.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: And so, if you were on the science track you spent a lot of time on what would be the east side of the campus, and relatively little mingling to the west side of the campus. It depended on what your major was and I think that if, for me, I didn’t really get to mingle until the senior year because I had so many requirements in science. And so, it was like a breath of fresh air when I finally broke out and had the time to dabble in Sociology and Theology and some of the... more cultural things rather than sheer science and technology.
  • Mel Thompson & Alenka Figa & Sioe Thung Thompson
    Mel: So, that was, I don’t know whether there’s more mingling now. I don’t know what the course curriculum is like. I don’t know whether there is as many required subjects now as there were then.Alenka: There are no requirements, which is-Mel: There were a lot of requirements.Sioe: No requirements, just at all?Alenka: There are no gen-eds except for the Tutorial.Mel: So that, you- And I don’t know whether, to pursue a science career, you were forced to take so many science courses.Alenka: That is, I guess I should clarify. Outside of the majors, the only required subject is Tutorial but within them there’s many major requirements, still, and classes are still very rigorous.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: So, the other thing that I would say is, at that- I was discussing with some of my classmates here at this reunion. When I was a boy, I came here and Grinnell was like a new universe. It seemed big. It seemed like a whole new world, and that was fairly self-sustained here, and it's y’know, the center of Iowa. As I became a man, I’ve subsequently seen campuses that are much larger, much more diverse in their student body and in the course curriculum.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: However, if I think on it, if I want I can relate to Cornell University where my daughter went and, I mean, the course catalogue looks like the telephone directory in New York City. It’s just thousands of courses to choose from. But the fact of the matter is, with the requirements, you couldn’t possibly partake of all of those, all those courses that are available in a big university.
  • Mel Thompson
    Mel: So, it’s funny, looking back at that time of my life, this was the right size place for me. I think I’d have trouble coming back to Grinnell, now. But, Grinnell was a huge launching pad for my career. I got into all my medical schools that I applied to. I was well-prepared for what I chose to do in life, so I have no regrets in coming here. I just did, it seems small on coming back and on the other hand, I think it was the right size for that time of my life.
  • Mel Thompson & Alenka Figa & Sioe Thung Thompson
    Mel: So, it’s fun to come back. It’s fun to see how the place has grown. I wish I could spend more time with students. I think that’s more interesting than some of these activities... So, wanna say anything, sweetie? OK, my wife doesn’t have anything to add. Do you have any other questions?Alenka: If you- you can take a peek at the sheet again. But, I think I’m all right. The interview lasts as long as you want it to, so if you’d like to be finished that’s also fine.Mel: ...I don’t know, I think.Sioe: I think that's just... you’ve said it all.Mel: I think that the- it’s- I’m glad I came back. It’s been a long time.
  • Mel Thompson & Alenka Figa
    Mel: So, we actually got married here. We got married in Herrick Chapel.Alenka: Oh, that’s awesome!Mel: And the reception was at the Grinnell House, and it was very enjoyable and it was meaningful. So, coming back is a little bit like homecoming.Alenka: Tha'ts great.Mel: OK, well, I can’t think of anything else particular that might be relevant here.Alenka: Well, that was great so if you’d like to leave it there, that’s fine.Mel: OK, good.Alenka: Yeah, thank you!Mel: Alright. You’re quite welcome.
Alumni oral history interview with Mel Thompson '68 and Sioe Thung Thompson '68. Recorded June 1, 2012.