The former director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia has died, the center announced Thursday.
Kenneth Winfred Thompson, 91, died Saturday at Martha Jefferson House.
He led the Miller Center for two decades, greatly building its national reputation.
“I don’t know of anyone else who genuinely crafted a place, a physical place and an intellectual place, in the way that Ken Thompson did with the Miller Center,” said former UVa President Robert M. O’Neil.
Thompson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 29, 1921. He graduated from Augustana College, and then served in the U.S. Army in infantry and counter intelligence roles during World War II. He later obtained graduate degrees from the University of Chicago.
He taught at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University before leaving academia for years. He spent most of his time outside of academia working for the Rockefeller Foundation.
In 1975, he returned to teaching, coming to the University of Virginia. In 1978, he was named White Burkett Miller Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs and also became director of the Miller Center.
“It had somewhat earlier substantial origins, but Ken really created a Miller Center culture,” O’Neill said, noting Thompson cultivated a strong board and enlisted former Gov. Linwood Holton to help with the center.
“He, of course, was an eminent political scientist, but he brought a remarkable blend of scholarship ... and engagement with national life, and ... created for the University of Virginia an extraordinary legacy and presence,” O’Neill said.
Thompson focused his time at the center on the study of the presidency, and helped organize eight national commissions, along with editing or writing dozens of books.
“The Miller Center would not be what it is today without the inspiration and passion of Ken Thompson,” said former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, current director and CEO of the Miller Center, in a release.
“Ken initiated much of the work that continues to this day,” Baliles continued. “Because of him, presidential history that might otherwise have been lost will be preserved for generations to come. Ken will be greatly missed, but his legacy will live on as we carry on what he started.”
His bi-weekly forums drew scholars, journalists and officials, including presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
O’Neill remembered Thompson as a gracious host who put on a huge number of programs at the center.
“He had an extraordinary command of people who would drop whatever they were doing in Washington or New York or Atlanta and come to Charlottesville, because the Miller Center really was the kind of beacon for politics, the presidency and so many people around the presidency, whom he just cultivated and recruited and engaged,” O’Neill said.
Thompson retired as director in 1998; he continued to lead forums until 2004. A wing of the center is named in his honor.
Thompson is survived by three sons, a stepdaughter and four grandchildren.
There will be a private ceremony for family, but a memorial service celebrating his life is planned for the future.
Donations may be made to the Miller Center of Public Affairs, Attn. Kenneth Thompson Forum Fund, Office of Development, PO Box 400807, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4807.