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Thompson looks back on 40 years of service

Tommy Thompson welcomes the Apple Festival crowd in 2013. Tommy Thompson welcomes the Apple Festival crowd in 2013.

Seldon Osteen, Henderson County’s clerk of superior court, was already on the ballot in 1974 when he received a diagnosis of cancer. Looking around for a replacement, the county’s Republican leaders settled on a young banker and recent college graduate who had grown up in Dana.

“In about July, the Republican Party called me and said, ‘Tommy, he’s got to drop out. We want you to step in and run in his place.’ Well, that kind of blew me over but I thought, I’ll take the opportunity,” Thompson said in an interview.

Last month, after serving eight terms as clerk of court and two on the Board of Commissioners, Thompson, 66, announced his retirement from political office. In an interview with the Hendersonville Lightning, he talked about his life of public service, from that ScanTommyThom12 11974 campaign cardfirst campaign to his recent work on Board of Commissioners.

What he lacked in experience back in that ’74 campaign, he made up for in youthful energy. He had a name that was well-known around the county, especially in the apple country.

“I did a door-to-door campaign, saw about 5,000 households and won that election,” he said.

He beat Democrat Neal Grissom, who had been chief deputy under Sheriff Jim Kilpatrick, back in the days when Democrats were competitive in the county. After that 631-vote margin, he would never have a close race again. He turned back challengers decisively in 1978 and 1982, then won re-election without opposition five more times without opposition. He retired in 2006 at age 55.


Colorful courthouse figures



1951: Born at Patton Memorial Hospital to Preston and Gertrude Thompson. (The late Harry Thompson, of Harry’s & Piggy’s, was an uncle.)

1969: Graduated from East Henderson High School.

1973: Graduated from Western Carolina University.

1974: Elected Clerk of Superior Court, re-elected through 2002.

2006: Retired from clerk’s job.

2010: Elected to the Board of Commissioners, serving as chairman in 2012 and 2015 and 2016, vice chair in 2013 and 2014.

Oct. 23, 2017: Announces his retirement from the Board of Commissioners.

December 2018: Travel, spend time with Sherri, spoil the grandchildren, fish.

Serving most of his career in the 1905 county courthouse before criminal and civil courts moved to the Grove Street building, Thompson recalls colorful figures and trials.

“We had this dude that was known to run,” he said. “He was fast as lightning. Given the opportunity he would just streak away and take off. The law enforcement people told the judge, ‘If he gets half a chance he’s out of here and we know that.’

“This judge carried a .45,” Thompson said. “So he called me up to the bench and he called the bailiff. He pointed to the back wall and said, ‘You see that thermostat with that little gold dial on it. I can hit that from here. Now, Mr. Bailiff, you put one of your men back there and you stand over here and, Tommy, you just lay low and if he runs I’ll get ‘em right here.’ He took the .45 out and laid it on top. He didn’t run either.”

After 32 years, Thompson decided he had enough. The timing was right. His first two grandchildren were toddlers and he would look after them during the day. His wife, Sherri, was still working fulltime and both spent most of their time outside work caring for their elderly parents.

“We basically went nowhere,” he said. “We had those responsibilities and we took them to heart.”


Drinking through a firehose

In 2010, he agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to run for the District 1 Board of Commissioners seat that Mark Williams was vacating. Thompson knew plenty about civil and criminal court, foreclosures, mediation, adoptions, divorces and small claims. But when he was sworn in and installed as vice chairman that December, he plunged into a swirling eddy of a $120 million budget, tough decisions on spending cuts during the recession and crowds of people caterwauling about rezoning cases.

“Even though I had gone to every meeting for a year, I was sucking through a straw,” he said.

TommyThomOathAfter fellow commissioners elected him chairman in his second year, he quickly learned that the gavel gave him no extra power. He was still only one vote.

“Clerk of Superior Court is the hub of the court system,” he said. “When I was clerk I could shoot out some orders. I walk out (into the Board of Commissioners room) and I get into this five-man deal where I’ve gotta get at least two other people to agree with me. I can’t go out there and spit out orders. That’s not always easy. All of us have got egos. I know what I want. Charlie (Messer) wants what he wants. Bill (O’Connor) wants what he wants. You gotta work it together. So I was drinking through a firehose.”

If he was gulping hard, he also led the board during a series of capital projects and industrial catches unparalleled in recent county history.

With Thompson as chair or vice chair, the county built or committed to build the Health Sciences Center, Innovative High School, Edneyville Elementary School, Hendersonville High School, the law enforcement training center and the emergency management complex. During his seven years so far, the board has authorized tax breaks that helped land Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Bold Rock Hard Cider and GF Linamar.

Calling on his experience mediating contentious disputes as clerk of court, he guided the Board of Commissioners through the resignation of Sheriff Rick Davis, the Duke Energy transmission line project and water wars with the city of Hendersonville and the city of Asheville. County Manager Steve Wyatt attributes Thompson’s effectiveness to an ability to be patient and gather information.

TommyThompson12Tommy Thompson and County Manager Steve Wyatt, in 2012.“I’ve been doing this for 30-some years and I’ve worked with a lot of elected officials but the neatest thing I can tell you about Tommy is his ability to change his mind,” Wyatt said. “Tommy can look at things from all the angles and he can see things from different points of view as he gathers information. Tommy will gather information constantly and we’ll talk about it. He is open to changing his mind based on the facts. How refreshing.”

“There’s no guile, there’s not a hidden agenda,” Wyatt added. “He wants to figure out what’s right. He’s going to be a hard one to place. His vision, his ability to see the various sides of issues is very much a strength of his.”

A 'signature' John Hancock

Someone who has made a career of signing public documents — from custody orders to foreclosure notices to resolutions of the Board of Commissioners — might be expected to cut a few corners for the sake of speed. That would not be Tommy Thompson. His signature stands out for its clarity.

“When I was learning cursive in school I was trying to learn to write like my mother did. She would do this with a T,” he said, demonstrating the upper case letter that starts his first and last names. “Mrs. Arledge in third grade said, ‘Tommy, I don’t like that.’”

TommySignatureSo he changed the T slightly and came up with a style that Mrs. Arledge endorsed. He later added a sweeping reverse arc that creates a neat dome over this name.

“I get a lot of comments. I get a lot of people tell me, ‘That’s beautiful,’” he said.

“If I’m going to sign my name, if it’s valuable enough to sign, it’s valuable enough to know who signed it.”

If you ask Tommy’s son, T.C., about his father’s signature, T.C. will recall what his dad told him: “If I’m going to sign my name on a document that takes a man’s property or takes custody of his children or sends him to jail, I want him to be able to read it.”

“That’s exactly the way I feel,” Tommy adds. “If it’s worth putting my signature on they need to know that I take responsibility for.”


Gone fishin’

A year from now, Thompson, 66, and Sherri will both be retired and ready to enjoy family, the beach and fishing.

OathTommyThompson copyTommy Thompson, with his wife, Sherri, holding Bible, takes oath of office after his 2014 re-election.“I’ve given 40 years — that’s 10 elections — I think it’s time to enjoy my family and be more of a part of those grandbabies and the children than I was able to be early on,” he said. “I’ve got a trip planned for all of us in June or July to Destin.”

When he thinks about what his record of service, he puts family first.

“If I leave behind two wonderful children, four wonderful grandbabies who have had some direction from me and they are an asset to humanity, that’s a legacy,” he said.