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October 3, 2003

Richard Thompson; to deaf community, a guiding spirit

From:, MA - Oct 3, 2003

By Tom Long, Globe Staff, 10/3/2003

To read the resume of Dr. Richard E. Thompson -- a bachelor's degree from Harvard College, a master's degree and doctorate from Boston University, and a long career as a clinical psychologist -- one might think that deafness was not a disadvantage. The doctor knew firsthand that it was.

"Deafness is not only an educational, but a social handicap," he said in a story published in the Globe in 1965. "There are special problems. Because the handicap is invisible, it doesn't seem clear-cut."

Dr. Thompson, who was born deaf and who devoted much of his life to increasing public understanding of the deaf, died Sept. 23 in Avery Manor in Needham. He was 75.

"He was a role model for everyone in the deaf community," said Judith Good, president of New England Homes for the Deaf, a nonprofit group that operates residential facilities. "He was not just brilliant, but the kindest man you would ever meet."

Dr. Thompson was the first director of the Massachusetts Office of Deafness (now the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), which he led from 1977 to 1986. He was a member of the board of trustees of the New England Homes for the Deaf from 1986 to 1994. He also served a stint as president of the Massachusetts State Association for the Deaf, a statewide group representing deaf people.

"He had a long, long history of dedication to the deaf community and was at the table when advocacy for the deaf community was in its infancy," said Heidi Reed, current commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. "His work led to an array of services for the deaf that didn't exist before."

Dr. Thompson was born in West Hartford, Conn., when interpreters for the hard of hearing were not allowed in the classroom. When he was 10 he was having trouble lip reading, so he was enrolled at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton.

After six years, he enrolled at the Brown and Nichols School in Cambridge, where he prepared for Harvard.

"It wasn't very easy," he said of college, in 1967. "Of course, I couldn't be expected to get everything in lectures and had to rely a good deal on notes taken by other students and a great amount of extra reading."

Dr. Thompson went on to become a psychologist at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, the Beverly and Horace Mann schools for the deaf, and the Learning Center for Deaf Children in Framingham.

He also taught courses on the psychology of deafness at Boston University and Smith College.

"He was always positive and always offering encouragement," Good said. "I couldn't tell you how many people have said, `Dr. Thompson was there for me,' whether it was helping select a school or find a job or encouraging the parents of a deaf child."

He was "a visionary, who had the ability to move a community forward, and by his work and dedication enriched the lives of us all," Reed said.

Dr. Thompson leaves his wife, Arlene (Whittingham); a son, Kevin of Needham; a daughter, Julie Regan of Woburn; a sister, Helen T. Matthews of Wellesley; and a granddaughter.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow in Grace Chapel in Lexington.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.