Thousands mourn loss of Thompsons

Posted: Tuesday, February 08, 2000

FAIRBANKS - Eighty-eight candles lit the foot of the stage where corporate executives and homemakers, politicians and fishermen, tribal leaders and cabdrivers gathered to mourn Morris, Thelma and Sheryl Thompson.

The candles represented the people who died when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plunged into the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles. The service was held Monday afternoon - a week to the day and almost to the hour when the crash occurred.

Morris Thompson, 60, headed Doyon Ltd., the Interior's Native regional corporation, for 15 years. He brought it back from the brink of bankruptcy and turned it into one of Alaska's largest and most successful companies.

He helped secure passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the 1971 law that created Doyon and 12 other regional corporations. He was, in 1973, the youngest person ever named commissioner of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, at age 34.

But for all of his accomplishments and importance, he could talk eye to eye with the average shareholder. He never forgot he was Big Boy, the name he was given while growing up in Tanana, friends said.

``He never made you feel anything but as a human being, absolutely on the same level he was,'' said Byron Mallott, former executive of Sealaska Corp. and the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. Mallott, whose wife is Thelma's cousin, gave Morris' eulogy.

More than 3,000 people came to the Carlson Center for the service.

``He wasn't just for Natives. He was for everybody,'' said Donna Krier, a Fairbanks businesswoman who sat in the stands.

In virtually every speech Thompson gave, he talked about the support he got from his family, particularly his wife of 36 years, Thelma Mayo Thompson.

Thelma Thompson was born in Rampart, one village upriver from Tanana, and was an accomplished dog musher in her youth. She sewed wedding gowns for nieces, put up jars of fish and berries, taped Martha Stewart shows and shared recipes that were too complicated to follow, said Sharon Attla, who gave the eulogy for her aunt.

``She carried herself with such grace and poise wherever she went,'' her niece said. She was equally comfortable having tea with the first lady in the White House or making tea over a campfire, Attla said.

Sheryl Lynn Thompson, 33, was a poet, a violinist and a good swimmer, said Dawn Crombie, the daughter of U.S. Rep. Don Young. The congressman and his wife were Sheryl's godparents, and the girls became best friends when Morris Thompson worked in Washington, D.C.

Sheryl Thompson and Dawn Crombie went to Valdez in 1989 to work on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Thompson settled there and was one of the first women trained for a special oil spill response team. She helped found the World Extreme Skiing Competition and was a tireless volunteer for the annual Valdez event.

She planned to finish her final term in college and then attend law school.

Just two months ago, many of the mourners had come together for a black-tie dinner to celebrate Morris Thompson's retirement from Doyon. It was at the dinner that he was given airline tickets for a Mexican vacation.

The Thompsons were returning from that trip when the jetliner crashed, killing everyone aboard.

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