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ISSUE 119 VOL 17 PUBLISHED 4/21/2006

Thomforde reflects upon childhood, education, memories

By Emelie Heltsley
Staff Writer

Friday, April 21, 2006

Most St. Olaf students, faculty and friends know the "big" things about President Christopher Thomforde: his height, his short time with the New York Knicks professional basketball team and his college years at Princeton and Yale Universities. When talking with Thomforde, however, one learns that many “little” things greatly influenced his life as well.

Thomforde spent a happy childhood on Long Island, N.Y., living in three different Long Island towns from his birth in 1947 until his departure for college in 1965. His father, a manager of several restaurants in New York, and his mother, a full-time mom to Thomforde, his two brothers and sister, were hard workers.

On a recent visit to Long Island, Thomforde returned to his first school, School #5 in Oceanside, where he went to kindergarten. On the outside of the red brick building, the phrase "The future begins here," is still written.

"In a funny way, that’s true," Thomforde said. "It did start here, and I look at the twists, turns and places it’s taken me."

Thomforde spent second through sixth grade at the Birchlane School in Massapequa, N.Y. under the leadership of the principal, Miss Young. Thomforde remembered gathering in the lobby before classes and goofing around with his classmates.

At the Birchlane School, Thomforde had "very good teachers," mentioning his third grade teacher, Miss Berry, in particular.

"All the little boys in the class, like me, were in love with her," he said, laughing.

One day, Berry asked Thomforde what he wanted to be when he grew up. Other students wrote down baseball players and other famous people, but Thomforde wanted to be a Lutheran minister.

"I thought of my own pastor, Henry Ressmeyer, who was a great guy," Thomforde reasoned, saying that he thought he could be a good pastor.

Instead of laughing at his wish, Berry thought it was great. "She was always very positive," Thomforde said.

High school was also full of positive memories for Thomforde. He went to a private Lutheran parochial school, Long Island Lutheran High School. Parts of the building were still under construction when Thomforde was a student, and he has vivid memories of helping build the school. He explained with a laugh how the principal would announce over the PA system that students were needed to help unload truckloads of building materials, or that the ninth grade boys had to assemble lockers.

Because the school was so small, he "formed strong personal bonds" with many teachers and students, with whom he still keeps in touch. Thomforde sent one English teacher, Mr. Hofman, a copy of his "Last Lecture" from April 5, and Hofman critiqued it. High school also strengthened Thomforde's faith and affirmed his desire to be a Lutheran minister.

It was in high school that Thomforde became serious about playing basketball. The school did not have a court, so they had practices, games and tournaments at other schools. The basketball team, which was a strong, solid team, became the "public face of our tiny high school," according to Thomforde.

Thomforde laughed as he remembered the "protective" nature of Long Island Lutheran High School. During a tenth grade biology class, the teacher sent all the women out of the room to talk to the boys about reproduction. When the boys had heard the lecture, the teacher sent the boys out into the hall and brought the girls back in to speak to them.

There was also a "six-inch rule" that did not allow classmates of different genders to get within six inches of each other. Thomforde remembered the principal carrying the ruler around the halls and enforcing the rule, which was only waived for the prom.

"I got quite a good education," Thomforde said, praising the fundamental academic training that prepared him for his undergraduate years at Princeton University. Moving from the small, protected, Lutheran school to Princeton, however, was a huge change for Thomforde.

"Going to Princeton was like going to a foreign country," he said. "I felt like I had been put into a catapult and thrown forward."

Some students may be reassured to know that even Thomforde did not have a terribly easy transition into the college life.

"The first semester was tough," he said, crediting his basic study skills for getting him through.

Along with a spot on its excellent basketball team, Princeton gave Thomforde a strong love of ideas and learning.

"You were expected to come prepared to speak of your ideas," he said. "You were expected to take a position and advance it."

Stay tuned for next week’s installment of the Thomforde: A last look series where Thomforde talks about his time at St. Olaf.

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