Edward K. Thompson, 1907-1996

Edward K. Thompson, 1907-1996

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Readers are never quite sure what an editor does. Writers, without whom no magazine can live, have only a vague idea, and try to forget what little they know. Readers are even more in the dark. Does he write? Does he choose? Does he preside and inspire? Does he sit around in shirtsleeves, smoking cigars and slashing copy with a fat red pencil?

The answer is all of the above, a claim that can be doubled and redoubled with regard to Edward K. Thompson, who died in October at age 89. Ed Thompson was some kind of genius, and no one who ever worked for or with him will ever forget the experience. He was also, though we say it who perhaps shouldn't, one of the great editors of the last half-century.

The record can be briefly stated. Moving from the Milwaukee Journal to Life in the late 1930s, he was its managing editor during the great years from 1949 to 1961, with time out during World War II to create a remarkable magazine called Impact for the Army Air Forces. At age 62 he came to the Smithsonian, at the request of then Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, to invent SMITHSONIAN magazine and serve as its editor and publisher. All editorial and publishing wisdom at the time decreed that general-topic magazines were doomed — the only way to make it was to take on a single subject, like sports or medicine. Brashly he declared the new magazine would deal with everything that the Smithsonian Institution "is interested in, might be interested in, or ought to be interested in." With no financial backing to speak of at the beginning, it quickly jumped to a circulation of 150,000, and eventually soared past two million.

He once wrote that he regarded the top editor of any publication as "the Old Man": "'The Old Man' to me is a guy who brings a strong personal flavor to editing. He has some crotchets that are the subject of wry office jokes, but all in all he is considered fairly Jovian. He rides his subordinates hard but is inclined to say nice things behind their backs. They feel that he will not pass the buck to them when he gets into trouble with the owner or other high authority."

As the Old Man, Thompson was sparing of praise, but when he saw something he really liked he was apt to grin puckishly and say "Exemplary." He had an unerring way of jabbing a piece of text just where it began to wamble and bring it (and the writer) up short. Noting a minor bit of clumsiness by a subordinate, he admonished: "Excellence is a matter of doing a lot of small things well."

He wore a Stetson as a symbol of his North Dakota upbringing — although it's hard to imagine him on a horse. He liked to play the role of country boy, but in fact he was something of a closet intellectual who could insert a deftly chosen quote from the classics into any conversation. A cigar was always on duty, either in his hand or in his mouth; on occasion during layout sessions he would dribble ashes on a color transparency — the picture editors would have apoplexy. He loved music of every kind — classical, gospel and country, especially if it could bring a tear to his eye, like "Red River Valley."

On the wall of his office he kept a framed Jeff McNelly cartoon of a battle-scarred, cigar-chomping, defiant looking alley cat perched atop a typewriter. The caption said: "Editing is an honorable profession." He liked to see himself in the image of that old tom, ready to take on anything and anybody. But in a lot of ways the Old Man was a pussycat — generous, loyal to a fault, sentimental, a friend.

He described in detail how his own funeral service should be done, down to the choice of hymns and spirituals, and even specified that the congregation follow John Wesley's 1761 manual and "sing lustily and with good courage." That's an editor for you!

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