NEW HAVEN >> William Thompson was a postal worker who knew little about track and field when he brought his young daughter, Vanessa, to a brand new venture called the New Haven Age Group Track Club in 1976.
Before long, he was ingesting every magazine article and book about the sport he could find. He’d fallen in love with track and field, and, although strictly a volunteer, would become one of the most proficient and committed developers of talent the area has ever known.
“I had the opportunity to coach at the collegiate level for 43 years,” said James Barber, founder of the New Haven club and the longtime track coach Southern Connecticut State. “I’ve coached internationally, with our Olympic athletes and as head coach at the world indoor championships in Paris. I’ve worked with and had the opportunity to be with a lot of coaches. And Bill Thompson is as good as anyone I’ve ever worked with.”
Thompson, who died suddenly Sunday at age 72, inspired hundreds of area track athletes during his 38-year association with the New Haven age group program. His influence wasn’t limited merely to the track. He was in many ways a life coach. The impact of his loss isn’t limited to New Haven. Young people interested in becoming better runners came from all corners of the state to be a part of Thompson’s program.
Brianna Sims met Thompson at age 9 when her parents answered a newspaper ad about the New Haven program. Ten years later, she is one of several protégés who won high school state championships and earned a college scholarship.
“He was there throughout my childhood,” said Sims, a sophomore at Delaware State University. “He had a big effect on my getting a scholarship, getting me started and getting me through the rough patches. He called me all the time at school to ask how my grades were, how I was doing, if there was anything new going on in my life. I felt like I was another one of his grandchildren.”
Barber started the New Haven age group club in 1975, a popular endeavor that quickly swelled to over 250 children. He asked parents to help in various areas from fundraising to officiating to coaching. Thompson learned and perfected every aspect. In time, with the support of his wife, Joan, and daughters Vanessa and Jackie, he became head coach, de facto CEO and backbone for much of the past four decades.
“I’m not saying you couldn’t depend on other people,” said longtime Hillhouse track coach Gary Moore, who ran for Thompson as a club member in the 1980s. “But you could depend on him. He was going to be there every day. He was committed to the kids and the program. It was his time and he was always there.”
The club’s philosophy is simple: provide an opportunity to children as young as 6 to improve their self-esteem, build respect for family, team and community while learning to love the sport of track and field.
By all accounts, it was one big, happy family.
Thompson ensured those he coached would become well-rounded people. Among the requirements for members was to assist with volunteer projects at local shelters and charities. He’d also take an interest in their personal lives. If there was a family going through financial difficulty, he’d spend his own money to be sure those kids had proper track shoes. If there was a big road meet — the club traveled all over the country for national events — and someone’s family was struggling to make ends meet, he organized parents to pool money to pay those expenses.
“He was just that type of guy,” said Nancy Sims, Brianna’s mother and former club secretary. “He looked out for his kids no matter what their situations were.”
Said Barber, “There was never a child not worth saving, as far as he was concerned. He was wonderful; a great humanitarian.”
Former national champions with the youth program that went on to earn college scholarships range from his daughter Vanessa, a runner at Michigan State in the late 80s, to Hillhouse’s Precious Holmes, now at South Carolina, and recent graduate Kellie Davis, on her way to Indiana. Wilbur Cross sophomore Danae Rivers, one of the top middle distance runners in the nation, was last week named the Register’s Female Athlete of the Year.
“He was part of the support system in our program,” said Wilbur Cross girls’ outdoor track coach Nally Sahin. “He was always an extra spectator and coach who was with us every step of the way throughout the season. After a race, the girls would see our coaching staff and then go over to see him and ask how he thought they did. It was so nice to see that connection and bond.”
The New Haven club program is a valuable feeder system that helped the city’s high school teams become some of the most successful and decorated in the state. There is no middle school track program in New Haven, so early skills learned under Thompson, Major Ruth and their staff lay the groundwork for future success.
Hillhouse, Wilbur Cross and Career have combined for an astounding 77 state championships in indoor and outdoor track since the early 1990s. Hillhouse has over 40 titles; Wilbur Cross, in the midst of a resurgence, is seeing students come out in record numbers and is the largest high school team in New Haven.
He earned a pedigree to pursue high school or college positions. But his joy was molding untouched ability into polished talent. And he craved neither recognition nor attention, often deflecting credit to others.
“It’s like a work of art, and, over time, you can say ‘Wow, look at this thing. How magnificent,’” Moore said. “The bottom line is it’s the best sport in the world. Everybody can do it, no one rides the bench. There’s something you can do; it’s a matter of finding your thing. That was his philosophy with the kids. It brought joy to him to see how they grew over time.”
One of Thompson’s favorite sayings was “Once a New Haven Age Group Track Club member, always a New Haven Age Group Track Club member.” His runners took that motto to heart. Mindful of their roots and happy memories still fresh, many who’ve graduated from the program return to assist during the summers, role models to children looking to achieve similar success.
Those who’d completed the program could always count on hearing from Thompson periodically as they experienced life.
“It wasn’t like once you were done with the program he was done with you. He kept up with every single kid,” Nancy Sims said. “You just don’t find people like that anymore.”