Senior Judge William S. Thompson, standing in his chambers at D.C. Superior Court, is the image of success and sagacity: a dignified, gray-haired figure, elegantly dressed in a blue, custom-tailored silk suit. His oversized cigar rests in a desk ashtray, black judicial robes hang on a coat rack and on the walls around him are arrayed dozens of plaques, awards and mementos from his meetings with presidents, popes and kings.
It is a fitting portrait of the veteran of 23 years on the bench who has had multiple careers as a successful lawyer, tireless civic worker, D.C. City Council member in the days before Home Rule and globe-trotting advocate of legal solutions to international conflict. To some blacks in Washington's once-segregated legal circles, Thompson, now in semiretired status, has been a godfather figure, credited with helping scores of struggling young lawyers.
The image of the prosperous, celebrated judge reflects nothing of an earlier image of Thompson plowing behind a mule as a youngster on a North Carolina farm or waiting tables in Washington restaurants and pumping gas to earn his way through law school.
"When I left the farm in North Carolina I promised myself I would never tell another mule to get up even if he was sitting in my lap," laughed Thompson, now in his sixties, who is known to many by his college nickname "Turk," and known even better for his self-mocking humor and affable nature. "But I also vowed never to forget where I came from," he added more soberly.
Thompson has been a one-man resource center for generations of law students and young lawyers, among many others in Washington, while compiling an enviable record of professional achievement and public service. His colleagues talk about how Thompson has helped fledgling lawyers find jobs in law firms. In one recent instance, he helped a law student get a part-time job in a local fish house to earn enough money to stay in law school.
A former law partner, Verginald L. Dolphin, called him "one of the most personable people you'd want to meet. . . . If a person needed help and came to Thompson, he got it."
Similar praises are heard from National Urban League executive director John Jacob; Wiley Branton, dean of the Howard University Law School, where the international society bears Thompson's name; former City Council chairman Sterling Tucker; 88-year-old Josephine C. Smith, Thompson's "foster mother," who "adopted" him as a struggling law student in the 1930s, and attorney Charles S. Rhyne, one of Thompson's closest friends ever since they were poor, ambitious students in North Carolina.
Thompson apparently has kept his vows to work himself out of poverty and not to lose his humanity along the way. He moves through the courthouse corridors with jovial greetings for security guards and colleagues, old friends and new acquaintances, offering the same handshake he has extended to such former world leaders as Nikita Khrushchev, Marshal Tito, Haile Selassie and Pope John Paul II.
A former president of the Washington Bar Association and the National Bar Association and delegate to the United Nations for the American Bar Association, he was honored in 1970 at one of the city's largest testimonial banquets ever. One of the speakers was the late Chief Justice Earl Warren, whom he considered among his closest friends.
Thompson thanks his parents, a factory worker and a part-time maid in Mebane, N.C., for having "had the foresight" to send their only child to an Episcopal boarding school in Raleigh when he was 13. To pay his way, he did farm work and fired the furnace at the school, which is now St. Augustine's College. His baseball and football prowess won additional funds from three Raleigh physicians.
Thompson won a football scholarship to Howard University in 1929, but he was soon working his way through again when the financial pinch of the Great Depression cut off free meals for athletes. He played ball, but "had to mix it in" with waiting tables at the old Collier's Inn, a restaurant then at 18th and Columbia Road NW, and in the House of Representatives restaurant, Thompson said.
He dropped his ambition to study medicine because law school was cheaper, but he had to drop out of day classes at Howard and enroll in the old Robert Terrell Law School, the first night law school blacks could attend. When classes ended at 9 p.m., Thompson said, he pumped gas until midnight at a Florida Avenue station in which he was once a partner.
Thompson and Rhyne, a friend from Raleigh who had a similar background, arrived in Washington at about the same time. Rhyne's career ran parallel to Thompson's, except that Rhyne had the marked advantage of being white at a time when that made a major difference. Rhyne studied law at George Washington University. He and Thompson have been friends and collaborators since, from sharing business as novice lawyers to organizing the World Peace Through Law Center, an organization that Rhyne founded in 1963 to promote legal solutions to international problems. The organization has taken both of them to nearly every nation on earth.
Thompson believes their friendship helped motivate Rhyne to run for president of the Washington Bar Association in 1956. He won and immediately opened it to blacks, a move for which he was sued unsuccessfully. Thompson at the same time became president of the black D.C. Bar Association, and later headed the NBA at the same time that Rhyne, as president of the ABA, appointed the first blacks to ABA committees. Thompson was among them.
Thompson served during World War II at Camp Breckinridge, Ky., where he played baseball with Jackie Robinson, who was in his Army outfit, and with the 372nd Infantry in New York City. There he met Audrey Waller, his equal in civic-mindedness and energy, whom he married in 1947. They have one son, William W., who works in the pre-trial release office of D.C. Superior Court.
In an era when black lawyers often had to work as elevator operators or in other menial jobs because the segregated legal profession did not afford them a living, Thompson was an exception. The clubs, fraternities and organizations became more than an outlet for his congeniality, a vital business resource.
"There was hardly a night you could spend at home if you wanted to keep up a practice," Thompson once said. "You had to make contacts through social circles . You had to hustle." Black lawyers hardly ever got clients other than blacks, who were "generally on the lower rungs of the economic ladder" and "you had to take a hundred cases that only paid $100 apiece."
Although he now vacations in Europe and winters in the Caribbean, he is still an active member and contributor to many of those organizations, lodges, and boards of trustees, and especially to Howard University.
James Hudson, of the politically influential law firm of Hudson, Leftwich and Davenport, said he admires Thompson as a "craftsman" who "knew how to make money when practicing law wasn't easy. . . . He was able to take what was there and make something of it."
Thompson said he was busy with his practice and "thought it was a joke" when he was telephoned in 1965 and told " 'The president wants to talk to you.' " At the White House, to his surprise, Lyndon Johnson greeted him "by my nickname and asked if I had any tax problems. I said no, because I never made any money." Thompson became a $7,500-a-year member of the D.C. City Council, and used the relatively powerless position to help push for home rule. Thompson, a Republican, said he never knew how he came to the attention of the Johnson Administration.
While serving as a council member, Thompson was named an associate judge on the D.C. General Sessions Court [later renamed the D.C. Superior Court] in 1969 by Richard Nixon. He and Rhyne had cochaired Lawyers for Nixon, a support group for Nixon's first presidential bid, in 1960.
Now retired, he still sits on the bench every day and performs other judicial duties, including performing hundreds of marriage ceremonies a year, a reflection of his "interest, loyalty and high respect for justice in the city," Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie said. Thompson is known as a "lawyers' judge" who is especially sympathetic to litigants' need for timely decisions, said Hudson.
As secretary general of World Peace Through Law from the beginning, he still spends many weeks a year traveling for the organization, which now has 152 member nations. He has been honored from Yugoslavia to the Ivory Coast to the Philippines, and "looked into the eyes of lawyers from every nation of the world," Rhyne said.
"Never has anybody been honored who deserved honor more," Rhyne said. "This community owes an awful lot to that guy. They don't come down the road like him very often."