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Edward Thompson


On this date in 1996, a journalism legend died in New York. He was Edward K. Thompson, a recipient of North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award in 1968.

Thompson was born in 1907 and grew up in St. Thomas, ND, where his father had a dry goods store and later a banking business. Thompson’s mother was an art lover, and she shared with her son her enthusiasm for artists and fine paintings.

Thompson finished high school at age 15 and moved to Grand Forks to attend UND. Grand Forks only had about 15,000 people at that time, but Thompson said in his autobiography that his introduction to the city was far more memorable than his later moves to Milwaukee and New York.

During his senior year, Thompson was editor of the Dakota Student newspaper. After graduation, he began a journalism career as editor of Carrington’s Foster County Independent. Two months later, he moved to Fargo, where he became the night editor of the Fargo Forum. A few months after that, he moved again, this time to Wisconsin, where he worked as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal.

Eventually, Thompson moved into the arena that would define his legendary career; he became the newspaper’s picture editor. The position allowed his love of art to flourish, and he was, in fact, credited with being the first journalist to use large-scale photos in newspapers.

Thompson’s gift for finding “just the write photo” came to the attention of Henry Luce, the owner of Time Magazine. Luce’s missionary father had raised him with tales of Teddy Roosevelt and his adventures in western North Dakota, so when Luce wanted to start a national picture magazine, Thompson, a Stetson-wearing North Dakotan, quickly rose to the top of the list as the man to make it happen. In 1937, Luce offered Thompson a hefty salary and Thompson accepted. Their creation was to become a smash hit – a luxurious publication called Life Magazine.

During World War II, Thompson edited a highly regarded magazine for the Air Force. And by 1944, he was in charge of intelligence regarding the German Air Force. Afterwards, he returned to Life Magazine, where he stayed until retiring in 1968.

He wasn’t done, however. He went on to serve as special assistant to the Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. Then, he was back in the magazine business, founding the Smithsonian, soon to become one of the most popular monthly magazines in the United States.

Thompson retired – again – in 1980, at age 72. As he reflected on his accomplishments, he began another project; he wrote a book called A Love Affair with Life & Smithsonian. In it, he talks about writers, wars, photographers and presidents ... and of his extraordinary life in journalism. And here’s another little something, Thompson’s son grew up to become the editor of the Readers Digest.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm