When Arthur Rudolph “Rudy” Thompson was born in October of 1912, the Van Buren Bridge in Corvallis had not yet been built.
That fall's Oregon Agricultural College football team was on its way to a 3-4 season under coach Sam Dolan, including a 3-0 loss to Oregon in a Civil War game played in Albany.
Thompson, 106, graduated from Oregon State College in 1952. He quit smoking 64 years ago in 1955. He says he still sips a bit of red wine and Scotch.
He is believed to be the oldest living OSU graduate. And he’s still going strong.
Thompson, accompanied by his son, Gary, visited the campus Wednesday, meeting for a joint interview at, naturally, the Alumni Center, with the Gazette-Times and Kevin Miller, editor of the Oregon Stater, OSU’s alumni magazine.
Thompson also wound up scoring an unscheduled visit with President Ed Ray at his office in the Kerr Administration Building.
According to Miller, Thompson told Ray, “I’m glad that I made the decision to come here in the first place.”
Thompson, who lives in the Sierra foothills town of Alta Sierra, California, already had had quite a life before matriculating at OSC and paying for it with his GI bill veterans benefits.
He had worked mainly in the fishing and lumber industries. He didn't earn his high school diploma until age 22 after dropping out in the eighth grade. He already was married and a father and had contributed to the American war effort with service in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Today, OSU officials would call him a “non-traditional” student. Not so then, with platoons of fellow veterans also hoping to secure a degree … and a future.
“A good share of the students were there on the GI bill,” he said of his college days.
Thompson, whose aptitude for jewelry making could be seen on his belt buckle as well as the gem at the top of his hand-tooled walking stick, also is a veteran storyteller. His memory for events that are 70 or 80 years in the past is nothing short of astonishing. And like all good storytellers he isn’t shy about veering off into weeds every now and then. That's where the good stories lie.
He remembers the hull number or name — or both — of virtually every ship on which he served and remembers that the skipper of the YP 72 patrol craft was called “Squeaky” Anderson because “when he got excited he had a squeaky voice.”
He need a little help remembering that Astoria is the town at the mouth of the Columbia River and actually expressed frustration with himself for not remembering all the names of his college teachers.
One teacher, whose name he did remember, a Mr. Johnson, taught wood shop at OSC. A frequent class exercise involved a student bringing in a piece of wood for the class to try to identify.
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“One day I brought in a piece of wood I had picked up on the beach at Newport,” Thompson said. “Mr. Johnson picked up the piece and studied it. He got out his pocket knife to poke around a bit, and he studied it some more. Finally, he said ‘it’s driftwood.’ “
Thompson remembers being on the YP 72 in the Aleutian Islands off of Alaska with his shipmates waiting for an expected attack from Japanese aircraft.
“We kept waiting and waiting for the planes to come,” he said. “Finally, in the distance we saw something that looked like planes. But when they got closer we could see it was sea gulls … flying in formation.”
He got engaged to and eventually married a woman from Fresno, California, named Carla Samuela. He was married to Sammie, as she was called, for 62 years before she died at the age of 93 in 2007.
Thompson felt a strong tug to return to his native Pacific Northwest, but Sammie was a San Joaquin Valley girl and not fond of the weather up here.
“She’d say “in Oregon it’s either raining, going to rain or just got through raining,’ " he said. They settled in California instead.
Thompson had some heart valve work done recently, with son Gary fearing that he might never travel again.
“But he got so healthy,” Gary said, “that I said ‘how about a trip?’ "
With relatives and friends sprinkled throughout Oregon, Rudy and Gary set up a series of stops, including his old college town. They hope to put out to sea for a bit at Pacific City in a dory just like one he built as a kid growing up in Toledo.
He said he never really thought about living to be 106 years old.
“I do remember sometimes wondering if I’d live long enough to see the turn of the century,” he said. He made it easily, and has added 19 more years.
What’s his secret?
“I was very careful and picked parents with good genes.”