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BEMIDJI, Minn. — They called him Doc, Tuba Jim, Chick, Councilor, and one of the “Five Sons.” Jim Thompson answered to all of those nicknames.
But to colleagues, patients, bandmates, fishing and hunting buddies, and fellow golfers, the 88-year-old longtime Bemidjian was best known as a friend. Thompson died on Aug. 16, 2021.
James Rorem Thompson was born in Fergus Falls but moved to Bemidji at a young age when his father, Carl, took a job as a music professor at Bemidji State College. Jim attended the Lab School at the college and graduated from Bemidji High School in 1951. He became an ophthalmologist, played tuba in a variety of musical groups and enjoyed curling, golf and the outdoors. He also served on the Northern Township Board and the Bemidji City Council.
“I always felt that he was a true friend,” said Dwayne Young, a former patient who also played golf with Thompson for many years. “We laughed and joked quite a bit. He was a very honest, very forthright person.”
Longtime friend Bob Wilson spent a lot of time in a duck boat with Thompson. Sometimes longer than he thought they should.
“He wanted to get his limit every time,” Wilson said. “We’d be out in a pothole and I’d say, ‘Jim, they’re not flying today. It’s sunny, it’s no good, let’s go home.’ He’d say, ‘No, we’re staying to get our limit.’”
Leon Johnson met Thompson in kindergarten at the Lab School and remained a close friend.
“They called him Chick because he raised chickens in a pen at his folks’ home on Birchmont Drive,” Johnson said. “I will miss all the old stories we shared. He knew 70% to 80% of everyone in town.”
Notice the names: Thompson, Wilson, Johnson. Throw in buddies Alden Kittleson and Don Thorson, and you get the “Five Sons.”
As a talented musician, Thompson was best known for playing tuba with the Just Because polka band, which was formed in the 1960s.
“He was a No. 1 as a friend and as a bandmate,” said Ed Gersich, who played piano, accordion and button box with Just Because. “He was one of the finest horn players and was sought after by other groups who asked him to sit in. He enjoyed playing so much. ...
“We said we’re going to get together and make some music instead of playing cards,” Gersich said, “and that’s what we did. Jim was tremendous with that horn.”
Neil Skogerboe became one of Thompson’s closest confidants in recent years. They met in 1979 when Skogerboe and his wife, Celeste, moved to Bemidji, and their first dinner invitation came from Jim and Dot Thompson. Duck stew was on the menu that night, and the two doctors began a long friendship that included many duck hunting trips.
Eventually, Skogerboe and Jim started meeting after breakfast to talk about life, death and religion.
“Jim was kind of a skeptic when it came to Christianity,” Skogerboe said. “He wasn’t hostile, but he was skeptical. And I was not a skeptic; I clearly am a believer. One of his biggest barriers was that various people in the world had treated him badly, and he held on to that. We talked about how you really have to forgive those people.”
Thompson suffered a stroke in March 2020 just as the coronavirus pandemic started shutting things down. He was isolated in the hospital and a long-term residential care center until his death.
“Gradually it got so I could come inside and see him,” Skogerboe said. “He just seemed to be so glad to have me come. It really was remarkable because he had all this bad stuff happen to him, and his health was deteriorating. He wasn’t in very good shape, but his spirit was really remarkably good.
"The next time I came to see him, he said, ‘I gave it all to Jesus. All of my regrets, all of my unforgiveness. Everything is gone.’ He became a believer, and he died at peace.”