In the 1950s, it was possible for a rural high school basketball star to become the fixation of a whole state. A new biography remembers Gary Thompson and "the perfect storm" of his celebrity.
JEFFERSON, Iowa — Gary Thompson, an Iowa icon and two-sport All-American, emerges in a new exhaustive biography as much more than a college basketball headliner.
Thompson is an ambassador from a different era, the 1950s, a golden time not only for high school and college basketball but for small towns, too.
With multiple-source detailing, author Chuck Offenburger uses “Gary Thompson: All American” to take us back to Roland, Iowa, of the 1950s, hometown of the celebrated “Roland Rocket.” Gary Thompson earned national renown at Iowa State University — beating Kansas and the great Wilt Chamberlain and later appearing with him as a first-team All-American on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Offenburger is a former long-time Des Moines Register columnist who to this day carries a reporter’s notebook just about everywhere he goes. He conducted about 300 interviews for the book — his sources range from the nurse who admitted a teen-age Thompson to the hospital after a car accident to larger-than-life coach Bobby Knight.
But in the end this book is as much about Roland, Iowa, for it is in a splendid time and place that Thompson came of age.
“I probably had more fun digging into the Roland Rockets saga than any other aspect of the Thompson story,” Offenburger said; “Maybe that’s my own bias toward small towns, small schools and rural Iowa.”
Gary Thompson played for Roland High School from 1950 to 1953 before starring at Iowa State University from 1953 to 1957. He coached and played for the former Phillips 66ers basketball team from 1957 to 1962, when he worked with the oil company. He would go on to use contacts made during those years to launch his family’s successful Ames-based business, Gary Thompson Oil company, which is today involved in both convenience stores and commercial development.
Many Iowans recognize Thompson from his long career as a television color commentator for Iowa State and other big-time college sports as well.
In a recent interview over lunch at the Peony Chinese Restaurant in Jefferson, Offenburger said Iowa’s one-class-fits-all high school basketball tournament of an earlier time — and the absence of today’s television-addicted culture — created the perfect storm of celebrity for Gary Thompson.
“It was not like you could stay home and watch 10 different college ball games and pro ball games on television every night,” Offenburger said. “That just wasn’t there, so people went to more basketball games, went to their high school activities.”
What’s more, the Des Moines Register blanketed Iowa with coverage (the paper had advertisers in all 99 counties at one point) so when an athletic star appeared the whole state would really zero in.
“You don’t have that little school sports hero quite like you did back then,” Offenburger said. “Iowa was hungry for a small-school hero in that time, and Gary Thompson was it.”
Thompson was central in two of the biggest basketball games ever played in Iowa, one with Roland and the other at Iowa State.
“It was possible to have these giant-killer stories,” Offenburger said.
In March of 1951 Thompson’s Roland High School — with 73 students and just 40 boys — beat Waterloo West in a state tournament quarter-final game before 14,000 people at the University of Iowa Fieldhouse. The Rockets then upset Des Moines East before losing to Davenport High School.
“Iowa being mostly a rural state of small towns and small schools, especially then, if you were from a small school and you beat Waterloo West or Des Moines East and almost beat Davenport, I mean the state would bow down to you,” Offenburger said.
The fact that Thompson was only a sophomore, and stood just 5-6, added ample grist to the mills of sportswriters who published stories with far more passion and lyricism than most newspaper people today.
Offenburger says the 1951 state tournament is clearly the defining event in Thompson’s career.
“Everything that came later in his playing career and in life was based on what came his way after that Waterloo West upset,” Offenburger said.
In telling us about Thompson, Offenbuger provides great detail about Roland and Iowa small towns in the 1950s. For example, there were never any dances in Roland then, because, as in the Kevin Bacon movie “Footloose,” dancing just wasn’t allowed. The community had been founded by stoic Norwegians and very much led by the Lutheran Church, yet diversity arrived in the small town outside of Ames in the form of Jamaican workers at a canning plant and a band of gypsies that came annually through Roland.
Additionally, early in Thompson’s high school career, he was coached by Buck Cheadle, a Chickasaw Indian-philosopher who Offenburger says is a “grand character” in the biography.
“On the high school level, going into that kind of detail may have been unnecessary, but by God I think it makes good reading,” Offenburger said.
Thompson provides an intriguing analysis of why a small-town basketball team like Roland’s could achieve seemingly outsized success.
“My memory is that there was a basket and bang board in every driveway in Roland,” Thompson said. “I think one of the reasons we started having good teams was that, growing up in a small town like that, there was never enough kids so that you could play with your own age group. You had to play with the older kids, too.”
In 1957 Thompson would be both an Associated Press and Look Magazine first-team All-American.
Offenburger devotes a full chapter to Iowa State’s 39-37 win over No. 1-ranked Kansas in 1957. With that victory Iowa State hit No. 3 in the national polls, its highest ranking ever.
Younger basketball fans will learn a good deal from a section on Thompson’s time with the National Industrial Basketball League’s Phillips 66ers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Safeway, Caterpillar, Goodyear and other well-known companies of the era fielded teams of top college players who’d been recruited to play ball and work for the companies. With the National Basketball Association in its salad days, the corporate teams were an attractive option for student-athletes of Thompson’s caliber.
Those interested in business can comb through the chapters about Thompson Oil, which Gary Thompson started in 1968. Recently Thompson was involved with the development of a hot retail area in Ames near Best Buy and Borders on South Duff Avenue that includes a Cold Stone Creamery store and the popular Pancheros Mexican Grill.
And, of course, there is much about the business of broadcasting and the stars and commentators Thompson encountered in more than 30 years of calling games.
In producing the book, Offenburger inked a deal with Thompson in 2004. Working from his home in Cooper, outside of Jefferson, Offenburger compiled the research and interviews needed to chronicle Thompson’s life. He conducted a number of interviews at Thompson’s office and house totaling about 50 hours. The real writing aspect of the book started in early 2008 and Offenburger spent most of last year on that. Thompson’s friend Roy Reiman, a native of Auburn and magazine magnate
who graduated from ISU in 1957, served as the copy editor of the book
published by Hexagon Groudhaven Group in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (To order the book write to: Gary Thompson: All-American c/o Our Iowa Magazine, 2501 North Loop Drive, Ames, Iowa 50010. Checks should be written to Our Iowa for $19.95 per book, plus $3.95 for shipping of one book, or $4.95 for shipping two books or more.)
Of course, the project also involved many trips to Roland and Iowa State for basketball and football functions. Offenburger said, “If you’re with Gary Thompson around Iowa, with anybody middle age and above, he’s better known than the governor.”