In the fall of 1950, a group of eager young men from Vero Beach, Florida, arrived at Mercer University. The five Vero Beach Boys, as they became known on campus, had a great deal in common, including the fact that they were all recruited by loyal alumnus James A. Thompson, a 1929 graduate of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Also known as “Coach” Thompson, James was a well-respected teacher and coach at Vero Beach High School from 1938-1949. He was elected and served as school superintendent of Indian River County Schools from 1948-1969, making him the longest-serving school superintendent in Florida history at that time.
Coach Thompson loved Mercer and became a volunteer recruiter for the University, helping to draw students from Vero Beach and other parts of Florida. The five Vero Beach Boys — Jamie Buckingham, John Jewett, John Schumann, Eddie Trent and James’s son Jim Thompson — were among his first recruits.
While students at Mercer, all five of the Vero Beach Boys pledged Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and were enrolled in ROTC. They were also at the root of many campus antics, such as a gunpowder bomb they made in sophomore chemistry and set off in the middle of the ROTC parade field late one night. Another antic involved George Ambrose, a mystery student the group originally made up in high school. Jim Thompson knew Ambrose was enrolled in a large economics class, and when the professor took roll, he answered for Ambrose, who ended up passing the class.
After graduating, four of the five received commissions as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army. The fifth, Buckingham, attended Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Eventually, four of the five returned home to Vero Beach in pursuit of various careers, and Jim Thompson became the glue that held the original Vero Beach Boys together through all of life’s transitions.
Jim Thompson met his wife, the late Lois Brazier, while they were both students at Mercer. The couple graduated and married in 1954. Upon graduation, Jim served two years active duty in the U.S. Army in Virginia and Texas. In 1956, Jim returned to Vero Beach and began his 28-year career in the U.S. Army Active Reserve while also beginning a career in the insurance business, joining Buckingham-Wheeler Insurance Agency, eventually becoming president and sole owner of the agency. He also had a long career as a sports official that began in 1953. When his officiating career ended in 2016 due to knee surgery, he had officiated hundreds of games all over the state of Florida.
Like his father, Jim was known as a public servant of Vero Beach. He received numerous awards for his volunteerism and dedication to the causes he served. He was a member and leader in the Vero Beach Rotary Club, maintaining 65 years of perfect attendance throughout his membership. He was also a member of First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, joining when he was 6 years old and attending regularly until mobility issues prevented it.
Jim shared his father’s passion for Mercer and joined him as a volunteer recruiter and ambassador for the University. He and his wife also began supporting Mercer financially in 1965 and have made a gift every year since. In the 1970s, he was appointed “Class Agent” for the Class of 1954. He took this role seriously and wrote a letter every year for 48 years, asking his classmates to support Mercer and offering to make an additional contribution for each gift made by a classmate. He also made sure “classmate” George Ambrose made a gift every year.
Jim passed away on Feb. 12, 2022, before he had a chance to write this year’s Class Agent letter. However, the Thompson legacy of Mercer loyalty does not end with Jim. Much to his father’s and grandfather’s delight, Jim’s son David Thompson also chose to attend Mercer, graduating in 1978. Following in his father’s footsteps, David was an ROTC cadet and commissioned graduate.
In memory of Jim and his loyalty to Mercer, this year’s letter to the Class of 1954 was penned by George Ambrose. Emulating his father’s dedication and support, David Thompson offered to make an additional contribution for each gift made by one of his father’s classmates.
Schumann, now the only surviving member of the original Vero Beach Boys, has fond memories of his lifelong friend Jim Thompson, Coach Thompson and the role each played in his choice to attend Mercer, a decision that impacted the rest of his life.
“Heeding the advice of Coach Thompson on attending Mercer enabled me to acquire an education in journalism that made my 40-year newspaper career possible,” said Schumann. “After graduating, the five of us continued to maintain close ties for the rest of our lives, which included having lunch together when each of us had a birthday. Of course, Jim outranked us all, having achieved the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army.”
Reflecting on his Mercer experience, Jim once wrote, “If the years at Vero Beach High School were good, the years at Mercer University were probably the grandest and most glorious years of our lives.” This sentiment was best expressed through his ongoing dedication, loyalty and support for his alma mater.
In one of his Class Agent letters, Jim encouraged support from his classmates saying, “You should be proud to be a graduate of Mercer University. It has changed immensely since 1954, and the future is even brighter. Be a part of that future!”
With more than 90 years of combined loyalty and support from three generations of Thompsons, and with the support of other loyal alumni and friends like the Thompsons, Mercer’s future grows brighter by the day.