Roosevelt Levander Thompson (1962–1984)

Roosevelt Levander Thompson was a very accomplished Arkansan who achieved many things during his short lifetime and is recognized as one of the most gifted people to have attended Yale University.

Roosevelt Thompson was born on January 28, 1962, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to the Reverend C. R. Thompson and Dorothy L. Thompson. He attended Little Rock Central High School and participated in many of Central’s activities. During his freshman year, he decided he wanted to pursue a career in public service. By his junior year, his teachers were already talking to him about becoming a Rhodes Scholar. He was involved in school plays, the school newspaper, and various academic groups, and he was named the All-Star player on the football team in his senior year, during which he also served as student-body president. He went on to become a National Merit Scholar.

After graduating from Central High School, Thompson went to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he studied history and economic/political science and received many honors. As a sophomore, Thompson was elected president of the Calhoun College Student Council. He was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, a prestigious academic honor society, in his junior year. He also received the university’s Hart Lyman Prize, given to the top junior for high scholarship and character at Yale. However, school was far from the only thing in which Thompson immersed himself. He also worked eight hours a week in the work-study program at City Hall, focusing on housing and neighborhood development, and volunteered in a tutoring program in the New Haven Public Schools, where he helped revitalize a dying program at the local Troupe Middle School. In addition, he played offensive lineman for the Yale football team.

Thompson served in the statehouse as an intern. He also worked for future president William J. Clinton, helping Clinton in his campaign for governor. Clinton always encouraged Thompson to become a Rhodes Scholar, and Clinton therefore may be credited with helping Thompson to eventually receive this prestigious award—a pinnacle of postgraduate awards that only about thirty-two seniors in the nation receive—just before the holiday season of 1983. Thompson even scored a perfect 48 on his Law School Admission Test. In 1984, Senator Dale Bumpers said of Thompson, “He was a person admired by governors and senators and was sought out by them while still an undergraduate student.”

Thompson died on March 22, 1984, at 5:25 a.m. while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike during the last semester of his senior year at Yale. He was returning from a visit with his family in Little Rock, where he was working on a research project. A truck swerved on the turnpike to avoid a tire in the road. The truck’s driver lost control and hit Thompson’s car. He died instantly.

Thompson’s funeral was held in Little Rock Central High School’s auditorium. About 1,500 people attended. Among them were Bill Clinton and Senator Dale Bumpers. Newsweek later ran a one-page obituary about Thompson titled “Rosey: He Was the Best of Us.” Thompson was buried in the Rest in Peace Cemetery in Hensley (Pulaski County).

Although Roosevelt Thompson did not have the opportunity to fulfill his aspiration of attending Oxford, he succeeded in creating a legacy. Today at Yale one of the most distinguished awards given to students is the Roosevelt L. Thompson Prize; it has been given to members of the senior class for commitment to and capacity for public service every year since Thompson’s death. The auditorium of Little Rock Central High School was named after Thompson, and a scholarship in Thompson’s name is awarded to Central students every year. Additionally, a new branch of the Central Arkansas Library System named after Thompson opened at 38 Rahling Circle in west Little Rock on September 25, 2004. In addition, at Yale University, some students began advocating for renaming Calhoun College—named in honor of John C. Calhoun, perhaps best known as a devoted defender of slavery—after Thompson. Following a year-long student effort to replace the Calhoun name, it was announced in July 2016 the dining hall at Calhoun College, where Thompson had lived while a student at Yale, would be named in his honor.

For additional information:
“Arkansas Rhodes Scholar Killed; Called One of Best at Yale in Modern Times.” Arkansas Gazette, March 23, 1984, p. 3A.

Lyons, Gene. “Rosey: He was the Best of Us.” Newsweek, April 9, 1984, p. 41.

“Mourners for Scholar, 22, Fill Central High Auditorium.” Arkansas Gazette, March 30, 1984, p. 5A.

Mehak Gupta, Abbi Kymer-Davis, and Marinna Wessinger
Little Rock, Arkansas


    What a fine young man Roosevelt Thompson was! Although it is sad that Thompson’s life ended abruptly, there should be no doubt that his life touched many hearts, and in the “many hearts,” his tenacity for life and justice for all live on!

    Terrie Runnells Little Rock, AR

    During our lifetime, people come in and out of our lives. We are lucky to be graced with those relationships and friends. Roosevelt Thompson is one of those people who made such an impact on us that they are never far from our thoughts to this day.
    We always knew, without saying, that Roosevelt would stand and deliver such a difference in our world. He was just destined for greatness. The tragedy of losing such a gifted and honest person left a true void in the world. Those of us who attended Little Rock Central with Roosevelt will always be fortunate to say that we knew and loved him as one of our very own family members.
    He indeed touched the lives of many, and we still feel the loss.

    Susan Brighton-Voiles