Professor of mambo

T. Charles Erickson

T. Charles Erickson

Preparing for a lecture in the late 1970s. View full image

Thompson goes to the gym three times a week. “I think weight-lifting is the only fountain of youth that’s left,” he says.

It might be working. “He can leave on a Friday and go to Buenos Aires and come back on Monday and teach on Tuesday,” says Karen McGovern, who was Thompson’s assistant at TD. Doris says, “This guy has lived the lives of seven people. He’s almost 80, and he’s done more fieldwork in three months than I’ve probably done in my whole life. He’s nonstop.” Thompson says he’s visited nearly all of Africa’s 47 countries and much of South America. But choosing a favorite place, he says, is like choosing a favorite child. (He has two children and four grandchildren. He and his wife divorced in 1982.)

Thompson speaks fluent Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Italian; intermediate Yoruba and Ki-Kongo; and snippets of other languages. He can shift effortlessly from standard English to African American English. He likes to delight taxi drivers and African Yale parents by greeting them in their native languages. “I’ve heard him tell jokes in Japanese,” says Tate. “When he translates them, they’re funny.” TD student Eric Levine ’13 says Thompson asked for a tutorial in Hebrew insults, and took notes.

Anyone who has taken Thompson’s class or has lived in TD during the past three decades knows at least one Yoruba word: “àshe” (ah-shay). Àshe essentially means “make it happen,” and for the roughly 3,200 students who passed through TD during Thompson’s mastership, it became a motto and a battle cry. Filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn ’85, whose documentaries have twice been nominated for Academy awards, says Thompson’s message to TD students, “which is one I have returned to again and again, is that the only thing you have to be is yourself. And to find your own voice. It sounds like such a simple thing. But it’s not.” Thompson would roam the college courtyard and ask students what they were doing, Kahn recalls. “He was a person you’d want to have a good story to tell when he saw you.” And he always reassured newly arrived students who worried that they might not fit in at Yale.

“One of his gifts of God as a teacher is not to dismiss students,” says Thompson’s close friend C. Daniel Dawson, a New York University professor. “This is particularly true toward athletes. Universities use them in certain ways, and there are certain presumptions about them that Bob never has. When they lose a game he’ll tell them the Kongo phrase: ‘Through humiliation comes grandeur.’”

Businessman Bill Donahoe ’82, ’86MBA, who was a varsity football player in TD, says he was a lackluster student until he wrote his midterm for Thompson’s course. Thompson complimented Donahoe on the test and left a book on slave religion in his mailbox. Thirty years later, Donahoe still remembers the inscription: “For Bill Donahoe, a hellified student of Afro-American studies.” His suitemates teased him, but, Donahoe says, “Deep down, I thought, ‘Wait a minute—maybe I am measuring up.’ That was a breakthrough. I went from being a C and B student to a mostly A student. Master T saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

“What he taught was very important,” says screenwriter Martino, who was in TD. “But who he was, how he carried himself as a person, his way of being himself—I learned more from that than from his tremendously rich subject matter and scholarship. It’s impossible to think of TD without him.”

Tributes on and off campus have marked Thompson’s pending retirement as master. In March, 260 TD alumni gathered for a dinner at the college. In the fall, Yale held an all-day symposium called “Flash of a Spirit.” Among those who attended was David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, who wrote the preface for Thompson’s 2006 book on tango. When Thomas Jaffe ’71 lent a collection of Southeast Asian art to the Yale Art Gallery, he asked that the new gallery planned for it be named after Thompson and Thompson’s late colleague Professor George Kubler ’33, ’40PhD. And at TD, the wall above the south common room fireplace has a new inscription: “The Robert Farris Thompson Room—ÀSHE.”

On July 1, Yale College admissions dean Jeffrey Brenzel ’75 took over as master. Thompson plans to spend a year working on his longtime book project, Staccato Incandescence: Mambo in History, and then return to teaching. Mambo will keep him going, he says. From the music, he has received “the gift of exaltation.”

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