During the renaming ceremony for Calhoun College’s dining hall, now named in honor of Roosevelt Thompson ’84, former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 made a surprise appearance in the form of a letter to University President Peter Salovey.
Around 60 alumni and members of Thompson’s family gathered Thursday night to celebrate the legacy of a former Rhodes Scholarship recipient, freshman counselor, varsity athlete and beloved community member. A small reunion accompanied the ceremony, which Thompson’s seven freshman-year suitemates, his two brothers and friends from the classes of 1984 traveled from all over the world to attend. Salovey read Clinton’s letter — which arrived at Woodbridge Hall yesterday — in praise of Thompson’s “supernatural balance of self-possession and discipline with his keen awareness and deep concern for others.”
Prior to his death in an automobile accident during the final semester of his senior year at Yale, Thompson worked as an intern for Clinton while he was governor of Arkansas. Clinton endorsed the University’s decision to name Calhoun’s dining hall after Thompson, a move Clinton wrote would inspire Yale students who “have more power than they know, to be and do good.”
“When he won the Rhodes Scholarship, it must have been the easiest decision the selection committee has ever made,” wrote Clinton, a Rhodes scholar himself.
A portrait of Thompson — which hangs on one wall of the dining hall — was installed on Monday.
At the ceremony, friends and family members shared memories of Thompson and praised his commitment to civil service. Thompson’s friends and family said naming a dining hall after him was very appropriate, given that dining halls played a central role in Thompson’s undergraduate student life.
Leading the ceremony was Julia Adams, head of Calhoun College, who said Thompson’s recognition came at an appropriate time amid campus and national conversations about the name and legacy of John C. Calhoun, class of 1804.
Adams explained the details of Thompson’s portrait, noting that the apple blossoms and mockingbirds in the background represent the state flower and bird of Arkansas. These images, Adams said, reminded us of “the grace and … harmony of a natural order and the transcendent importance of our common humanity and human rights.”
“I wish I had thought of this myself,” Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, a former head of Calhoun, said of the dining hall renaming.
Holloway said Thompson and Calhoun were mentioned in a conversation he had with Clinton while sitting next to the former president during a Class Day ceremony.
Bryan Blaney ’84, a close friend of Thompson’s, said were he alive, Thompson could have run for president in the 2016 election. Other classmates of Thompson’s reflected on the great potential and promise of their college friend.
“Before Barack Obama, it was our thought that [Thompson] would become the first African-American president,” Angela Harris ’84 said. “He was very well-respected. Would do anything for anybody.”
Thompson’s friends and family praised the Calhoun College leadership for deciding to name the dining hall after him, although some had expected the University to rename the entire college after Thompson.
Errol Crook ’84, who played with Thompson on the Yale football team, said the dining hall was the most appropriate place for Thompson to be honored because Thompson was a unique voice in the “strongly opinionated, but mostly civil” conversations that often take place when students have meals together.
“He was a listener with the precision of a surgeon who made very wise, observant, fact-based comments,” Crook said.
Bill Taylor ’84, a suitemate of Thompson’s for two years, said he would prefer changing the name of Calhoun College, but added that he was satisfied with the dining hall honor. Taylor said he enjoys imagining Calhoun turning over in his grave by the thought of an African-American being honored in a building with his name.
Augie Rivera ’84, another suitemate, flew from his home in Texas to attend the ceremony. He said Thompson was part of what made Yale special for him.
“The people you meet here will always stay with you,” Rivera said. “He may have left us early, but he’s always with us.”
A plaque bearing the dining hall’s new name was installed on a stone pillar in the dining hall. Salovey said he intends to frame the letter from Bill Clinton and hang it in the dining hall along with Thompson’s portrait.
Calhoun College opened to undergraduates in 1933.