City Councilor Ronald Thompson remembered as volunteer, advocate
To have someone consistently volunteer a couple times a year or even each month is an exceptional commitment, said Julie Wilcke Pilmer, chief executive officer of Ride Connection, a bus service that primarily works for older adults and people with disabilities.
But to have someone like former Forest Grove City Councilor Ronald Thompson, who drove buses for the service every Tuesday for years, "is truly remarkable," Pilmer said.
Thompson died unexpectedly Wednesday, Feb. 12. Since then, Thompson's family and friends have said his dedication as both a policymaker and volunteer is an inspiration to anyone hoping to improve their community.
Thompson worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 30 years before serving for eight years as a city planner in Yachats and Waldport. He was elected to serve on the Forest Grove City Council five times, winning his first election in 2002. Thompson also served on multiple boards and committees throughout Washington County, including on the board of Ride Connection starting in 2004.
He used his position at Ride Connection to help start GroveLink in 2013. The bus program connects people with mobility difficulties in Forest Grove to essential services in town and other public transit.
"He was very diligent and committed to ensuring that there were accessible transportation options for Forest Grove and all community members," Pilmer said, adding that he was "instrumental" in creating GroveLink.
Once GroveLink was established, Thompson signed on as a volunteer driver. Even on days he wasn't driving, he used the shuttle service himself as one of its thousands of passengers.
After Thompson's death, Pilmer calculated how much he volunteered for the Ride Connection. Thompson logged more than 3,000 hours and 12,000 miles driving for the service.
"Ron's belief in the importance of accessibility for all is demonstrated in all of his work," Pilmer said. "It's going to be so hard to fill his shoes, because when you're looking for somebody who fits well within your organization and as a board member, you're looking for someone who truly believes and understands the mission."
Jeff Duyck worked with Thompson as a board member at the Forest Grove Senior & Community Center for years. He said Thompson understood how much aging populations, often made up of veterans, need the support.
"He was very attentive," Duyck said. "He was Johnny-on-the-spot and really represented us well. He was also really fun to work with, he had a great sense of humor."
Thompson was a key liaison between the senior center and other policymakers in the city during multiple projects, including the remodeling of the kitchen at the senior center, Duyck said.
He said the senior center had for years planned to remodel its kitchen, which hadn't been remodeled since the 1970s, but it struggled to come up with sufficient funds as costs rose over time.
The senior center finally was able to remodel the kitchen in 2018, with Thompson's help. Thompson helped secure a $275,000 contribution from the city to the remodeling project, which augmented the senior center's own fundraising and a federal community development block grant.
"He was there when you needed him, and he knew the system," Duyck said.
Thompson had a particular dedication to serving veterans, as Pilmer noted. Thompson served in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Washington, D.C., during the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1967.
He was an advisory council member at Washington County's Disability, Aging and Veteran Services program. Pilmer said Thompson helped veterans throughout Washington County access the annual Veterans Stand Down event through the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs. The event is a one-stop connection for homeless and at-risk veterans to access local services and receive essentials.
"I think this really shows who Ron was and how he really was committed to his community," Pilmer said.
Thompson's family members say his commitment to public service was intrinsic.
"It was in his DNA," said Thompson's youngest daughter, Sarah. "The essence of my father was to serve God and the community. He lived every day to do just that. It was never about money or finances, or ever trying to get a leg up for himself, but always trying to get a leg up for the other person."
Ronald Thompson was the oldest of four children growing up, and he was put in charge of a lot of household responsibilities as a child, Sarah Thompson said. She believes her father's willingness to take on tasks and help others was influenced by his childhood.
Sarah Thompson said her father's consistency driving for Ride Connection wasn't anomalous. Going through her father's possessions after his death, Sarah Thompson found his third-grade report card, which said he had been "neither tardy nor absent."
Ronald Thompson's wife, Donna, said in 30 years working for the Forest Service, Thompson only missed two days of work. Sarah Thompson also remembered her father donated blood to the American Red Cross every six weeks.
Thompson's older daughter, Trina Beil, said her father was particularly good at ignoring politics in his advocacy roles.
"He helped speak for people who didn't really have a voice," Beil said. "When single mothers can't afford transportation and they need a free bus service or vouchers for gas — he helped move them, he would drop off groceries. It didn't matter what religion, what race, what politics. He just loved helping people."
Donna Thompson said her husband was passionate about forming connections with people in the community. His East Texas accent drew people in, she said, adding that he always specified that he was from the Texas side of Texarkana, a community divided by the Texas-Arkansas border.
Donna Thompson remembered her husband's energy while campaigning. Ronald Thompson would walk door-to-door, visiting practically every house in Forest Grove to talk to people about his City Council candidacy, she said.
"After I was tired one day from walking, I sat on the grass, and somebody drove up and said, 'Are you OK?'" Donna Thompson recalled. "I said, 'Yep, thanks for asking.'" But her husband, she added, just kept on going.
Ronald Thompson's family members said they hope others in the community will take note of his commitment to service and be inspired to carry on similar work.
"We need people to be civil servants," Sarah Thompson said.
Following Thompson's death, the Forest Grove City Council is tasked with appointing a new councilor for the second time in fewer than six months. In October 2019, City Councilor Tom Johnston died following a battle with leukemia.
On Saturday, Feb. 15, the City Council had its annual goal-setting retreat. Ahead of the retreat, Mayor Pete Truax said he expected the mood to be somber, but he believes councilors know Thompson and Johnston would remind them they have work to do.
Truax said Thompson "never shirked responsibility," "he never bragged" and he always took an opportunity to talk about Louisiana State University sports. Thompson received bachelor's and master's degrees from LSU.
"He picked those things that were very very important to him, veterans, the elderly, the homeless, to make his priority on the council," Truax said.
Truax said it's up to the community to produce applicants to fill Thompson's vacant seat who will carry on the same kind of dedication to public service.
A service for Thompson will be open to the public at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23, at The Crossing Fellowship Church, located at 1950 Mountain View Lane in Forest Grove.
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