John Thompson has always been a doer and an organizer. He’s not content to sit still, or to rest on his laurels. And he’s been contributing to the community for a long time.
As he contemplates his retirement from almost 30 years at the United Way of Kitchener-Waterloo and Area, this year’s Mayors’ Dinner Honouree reflects on his busy, active life.
When John was 13, he organized a fundraising campaign for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in Mildmay, the Bruce County village where he grew up. “I was a bit of an organizer,” he says. “I liked the idea of setting goals and then fulfilling them.” But, John says, he “wasn’t doing anything extraordinary. In a small community, I think that’s the way most people are. You’re either involved, or you’re a hermit.”
Taking on responsibilities came even earlier. When he was just 8, he got his first paper route, “even though the minimum age was 10. I bought the route for 35¢ – about a month’s earnings at the time,” recalls John, now 56. He got to know all his neighbours, going door to door to sell Toronto Telegram subscriptions.
His father had died when John was just a year old, and John gives a lot of credit to his mother, who worked as a cashier at the town’s only grocery store. She instilled in her son a strong work ethic. There were a lot of fun times during his childhood too – especially hockey and softball. When he had to bus to Walkerton for high school, he was thrilled with the extent of the opportunities for athletics.
“I was a typical Canadian kid. I loved hockey,” he says. “It was ingrained.” That love for the sport continued even after John started studying economics at the University of Waterloo, when he worked at a hockey camp during the summers. When he turned 21, he started his own – Huronia Hockey Camps, which he would go on to run for 25 years.
Hockey didn’t get in the way of his studies at UW. Studying economics because of his interest in numbers and trends, John learned to balance the academic, work and social demands. “I became very independent during my university years – getting assignments done, paying my own bills and having a good time.” After attaining his degree, John worked full time at running the hockey camp for a few years.
He loved working with professional hockey greats like Paul Henderson and Ron Ellis, and with the kids who benefited from learning from their heroes. John wanted to learn more about kids, so he returned to university to get a teaching certificate, though not with a view to teaching. When he completed that degree in 1976, he was open to new opportunities to apply his skills and interests. That’s when he saw an interesting job ad in the paper.
Kitchener-Waterloo Federated Appeal had started up in 1941 (called Kitchener-Waterloo Federated Charities initially) to create an integrated fundraising campaign for services in the community and to support the war effort. Run by volunteers without any sizable staff complement, the organization grew steadily throughout the post-war period. Its 1941 campaign goal was $80,000. By 1976, the year John joined, the goal was $926,000. As the community grew, so did the work of local agencies, and they required ever more resources to meet those needs.
Executive director Bev Hayes had just joined the previous year, and he needed an assistant executive director / campaign director to help him. The job posting piqued John’s curiosity. “I liked the idea of a campaign, and connecting with people,” he recalls. Though he’s not sure he listed the CNIB campaign from his youth in his application, he was sure this was just the type of position where he could make a contribution to the community. There was a lot to learn. “Bev’s expertise was marketing. I was able to bring my organizational skills. But there were a lot of challenges. There weren’t a lot of professional fundraisers we could call on for advice, so we learned as we went along.”
John’s main responsibilities at that time were to facilitate the campaign committee and oversee allocations to member agencies. He does not like to take too much credit for the agency’s accomplishments, though. “We have been very fortunate to have strong community leadership over the years, and the continued success of the campaigns is proof of that.” Still, the growing complexity of the community meant a growth in the sophistication and staff complement of the agency. Other potential developments were on the horizon as well. By 1983, the board took a serious look at joining United Way of Canada. “We were doing well, but we thought we could do even better. There was a lot of untapped donor potential in the community that we wanted to cultivate,” says John.
One challenge the agency faced that year was the sudden death of Bev Hayes in August. John was appointed acting executive director and about a month later his appointment was made formal. The following year, 1984, Federated Appeal formally became the 106th member of United Way of Canada / Centraide Canada. This produced a number of benefits, such as training opportunities for staff and volunteers, new campaign methods and increased efficiency. (By that time, there were 29 member agencies; the campaign goal was $1.5 million. The Working Centre, not yet a member, received a grant from the agency. It would become a member agency in 1988.)
In the years since, needs have increased, the community has become even more complex, the campaign goals have grown, and the generosity of the community has kept pace, John says. “Initially after joining United Way, we doubled our campaign results in the first five years. Before joining, it was about every 10 years.” There have been controversies and economic downturns, but the organization has continued to grow and help more people. John is grateful for having had “the opportunity to guide the organization for so many years, and to work in partnership with the board to maintain the growth, relevance and presence of the organization in our community.” During his tenure, the campaigns have gone from $1 million to $5 million per year, the staff has grown from three to 13, and the volunteer network is more than 3,000 people.
When he steps down as chief executive officer in late April, John is not about to be idle. That’s not his style. As busy as he’s been with his job the last 28 years, he’s been just as active in volunteer commitments, sports and other pursuits. His resume shows a long list of activities that leaves one wondering how he managed to fit it all in. What is his secret? He can’t say exactly, but there’s one constant in everything he’s done – he’s done what interests him.
Sports continue to play a large part in John’s life. He was president of Huronia Hockey Camps for a quarter century until 1995. He worked for the Kitchener Rangers for seven years, as the business manager, statistician and radio colour commentator.
He co-founded the Kitchener-Waterloo Athlete of the Year Program and established the Sports & Scholarships Golf Tournament, and also chaired various committees of the Kitchener Sports Association over a period of 15 years. He currently serves as the KSA president, as well as Chair of the Board of Governors of the Waterloo County Hall of Fame. He’s also played a role in the Canadian National Men’s Fast-Pitch Championships, International Softball Congress Championships, and reunions for the Waterloo Siskins Junior B Hockey Club and K-W Dutchmen Hockey Club. John also coached minor hockey, baseball and softball when his sons Bryan and Rob were young.
John admits that his interest in sport outstrips his skill, but he loves the games nonetheless. He’s been able to use that interest and his connections in the community to benefit others. When he was approached in 1998 by a woman who needed help to get a wheelchair-accessible van for her son, John and friends organized a golf tournament to raise some money. That has turned into the annual Tournament of Hope Golf Classic, which has raised more than $125,000 and helped almost 30 families. “It may not be the biggest tournament around, and it may not raise the most dollars, but it has made quite a difference for some local families,” John says. He had previously chaired a Big Brothers golf tournament for several years and also a charity squash tournament for 14 years.
In the civic area, John has been active with the Chamber of Commerce and Drug Awareness Week. He was a founding director and treasurer of Waterloo Regional Crime Stoppers.
An ardent traveller, John has been to many exciting places including Peru, South Africa and New Zealand, the latter two in connection with the world softball championships. He’s also managed to visit almost every major league baseball stadium with his son Rob.
So what is next for John Thompson? He’s considering many options, but one thing is sure. He won’t be slipping into a sedentary retirement soon. As for United Way, he knows it will go on and prosper, “because it has such a dedicated board, hardworking and professional staff, and enthused volunteers. It is well resourced and respected in the community. It has the opportunity, and perhaps now the responsibility, to be even more relevant in the community. Imagine what it will be in 10 years under new leadership – AWESOME!”