As spoken by 90-year-old Ralph “Doc” Thompson and Phi Delta Theta at Eastern Kentucky University
In 1968, Eastern Kentucky University’s President Martin didn’t believe in the idea of Greek life; he held that college was for academic purposes, and these social clubs would only hold back the students. With the lack of Greek life flowing through the campus, there was an empty feeling of social life, an essential aspect of the college experience. Campus social life all changed when one man helped create change for the better.
Ralph “Doc” Thompson, one of Eastern’s professors, was asked by a group of his students to be the faculty sponsor of the brand-new fraternity chapter, Phi Delta Theta, and his life was never the same after.
The request was baffling to him because President Martin was still opposed to such groups. Ralph understood the importance of social clubs and their effect on college campuses. “EKU was very much a suitcase campus at the time. All the students went home on the weekends, and Richmond was a ghost town.” He didn’t hesitate to jump on the opportunity to bring life back into the campus.
As these were brand new social clubs for Eastern’s campus, there was no outside affiliation and were no more than a large group of friends coming together. Thompson realized that if these clubs were to have any longevity, there would be a need to bring in official organizations. After many requests from these social clubs to President Martin, the president finally allowed the clubs to petition inter/national fraternities and sororities for affiliation. Doc and his foundling social club asked Phi Delta Theta to authorize their group to induct officially. “In April of 1969, they [General Headquarters] came down and initiated our forty-seven original members as brothers of Phi Delta Theta and initiated me as well even though I was a faculty sponsor as the forty-eighth.”
Leading up to Phi Delta Theta’s founding, Doc’s story starts in small-town South Bend, Texas. He graduated from the University of Texas in 1963 with a physics and chemistry degree. After graduation, he took a two-year postdoctoral research position at Indiana University. Upon its end, he was on the lookout for a teaching position. Though his search found many good opportunities, President Martin offered him a job on the spot after his interview to join the Eastern Kentucky faculty.
“I had several other offers, but coming to EKU has worked out pretty well for me. I think it was all predestined, that everything happens for a reason, and taking this position led me to Phi Delta Theta.”
In becoming a professor at Eastern, Doc prioritized student relationships from the beginning. A chemistry student named Steven Oakenson was in the first class he ever taught. He became the founding president of the Phi Delta Theta chapter. He and Steven shared the idea that for EKU to thrive as a college, there was a need for a social community and Greek societies. When President Martin finally allowed clubs and required each to have a faculty sponsor, Steven immediately came to Thompson and asked him to be his club’s adviser.
Over the years as Kentucky Theta chapter adviser, many experiences and high points have made him proud. In 1986 General Headquarters awarded Doc the Samuel B. Stone award for chapter adviser of the year. GHQ awarded the Phi Delt chapter the Founders Trophy, the highest honor a chapter can receive. “Everything just seemed to come together for us. Yes, that would be my highest point over the last fifty years at this campus.”
The lowest point Doc has ever experienced during his tenure with Phi Delta Theta sadly counterbalanced the highs from 1986. A member of the chapter suffering from severe depression made a decision that would affect Doc for the rest of his life; he chose to end his life. “I knew him very well, he left a recording, and he named me as one of his pallbearers in this tape. I was extremely bothered by it for a long time.”
To this day, at ninety-one years of age, he still gives back to the chapter. He provides tutoring to any student that may ask for help in chemistry or physics. He speaks publicly and provides wisdom to new members of the chapter that may be struggling. He also takes trips all over the world with members of the chapter. “I love to travel, and my brothers take care of me everywhere we go. As my wife is in a nursing home, she is unable to travel. Now I give back to the students by covering the fees on these trips, and it feels good to let them experience life outside of Richmond.”
Doc is a beloved and well-known public figure amongst Greek life members and campus-wide. In April of 2018, Doc received the Student Life Achievement Award in front of hundreds of Greek students. “I’ve been speaking to students for years, so I wasn’t necessarily nervous speaking in front of a crowd. I remember at the awards ceremony, I was worried about getting up the steps onto the stage because there were no rails to get up on the stage, but as soon as I was announced, three brothers instantly got up and helped me make it to the stage. They were right there for me.”
Even though Doc has spent most of his life in Richmond, his kids did not. Most of his family resides in Florida. Although they have been trying to get Doc to move since retiring, he never has. “Phi Delt is a huge reason for never leaving; the support from the chapter has been overwhelming for so many years.”
It’s been more than fifty years with Phi Delta Theta, and Doc hasn’t regretted a moment. “I just think it’s fun; it’s the brotherhood; I enjoy doing things with these guys. It’s what keeps me going.”
More about Doc Thompson
As found in a 2017 nomination for an award by the acting house director of Kentucky Theta—
Ralph “Doc” Thompson is a Phi Delta Theta alumnus at Eastern Kentucky University. Originally from Texas, Doc moved to Richmond, Kentucky, to work at EKU as a chemistry professor. Phi Delta Theta first came on campus in 1969, where Ralph and forty-eight other brothers were the founders. Initiated on April 15, 1969, Ralph Thompson is Bond No. 48.
His love for this brotherhood is like none other.
At the age of ninety-one, whenever possible, Brother Thompson still participates at tailgates, homecoming and often speaks at chapter meetings. Ralph Thompson regularly supports his fellow brothers and invests in their future. For example, because Ralph Thompson understands how much medical school can cost, he wanted to help three recent EKU graduates accepted into Marshall University’s medical school further their education. He gave each a check in the form of a scholarship, which he likes to call the “Doc Thompson” scholarship.
During recruitment week, he speaks with the potential new members, which is a huge influence in getting them to join this great Fraternity. Once initiated, he takes each new member to dinner to get to know them better.
Every year, Ralph Thompson picks two Phis, sends them to Dallas for a weekend, and pays for the whole trip. Academic excellence is also a cornerstone value to Doc. He spends his morning in the school library and tutors his fellow brothers in just about any subject with which they need help.
Doc Thompson always does what ought to be done and is a true inspiration and a great depiction of what it means to be a brother in the bond.
—Award nomination by the KY Theta house director