ROCK SPRINGS – Professor of Earth Science and Engineering Craig Thompson is not only one of the finest educators Western Wyoming Community College has ever had but also a great friend to Southwest Wyoming and to the Wind River mountains, where he has conducted some 30 years of research on the range’s melting glaciers. Thompson’s teaching, student mentorship, environmental advocacy, and all-around collegiality have earned him a huge fan base at Western, and no doubt more than a few of his students and fellow faculty members are hoping that he will change his mind about retirement.
But Thompson said his decision to step away is the right one for him.
“The last 40 years, I have lived life at a rapid pace, and I’ve always felt as if I was spreading myself too thin,” he said recently. “I just look forward to some time when I can focus on things that I value. I’m not going to get out of teaching entirely; I’ve still got students who need to finish; I’ve still got research projects that need to be wound up. But trying to teach and do research and advocate for the environment and all of these things, it means that you live life at a breakneck pace. And so what I’d like to do is just slow down a little bit and concentrate on things that are consistent with my priorities.
“I’m kind of narrowing my scope. I’ve had my shot at saving the world, and I’ve done what I can,” Thompson added.
Thompson’s history at Western began in 1970, when he came to campus as a student. He graduated from Western in 1972, transferred to Colorado College, graduated from there and later earned his graduate degree from Stanford. Thompson returned to Rock Springs to run the Water Quality Lab at Western for 20 years before moving into the classroom, where he has educated and inspired two decades’ worth of engineering and earth sciences students.
The results have been tremendous. From research projects in the Wind Rivers to Wyoming’s Wind Racer competitions in Rawlins (which Thompson’s students have won the past two years), and from engineering lessons in the Aquatic Center pool to giant slingshot demonstrations outside of the Atrium, his students have utilized the knowledge Thompson has passed to them to advance themselves intellectually, academically and professionally. They have gone on to earn master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s and to work in important positions with regional industry, success that reflects his instruction and their talent and dedication.
Like so many of his colleagues, Thompson has also gone out of his way to assist students outside of the classroom. Most recently, in April he held a party at his home as a “friendraiser” for an international student, a native of Burkina Faso who faces political persecution at home, and who requires legal assistance to apply for political asylum in the United States. The party was a success and raised hundreds of dollars for the student’s legal fees, demonstrating that aspect of Western that Thompson said he would miss the most: the caring relationships between its people.
“I will miss the relationships,” he said. “I will miss seeing people that I know and respect and cherish on a daily basis. That is going to be hard. I will do my darnedest to maintain those relationships.”
Thompson said that the quality of education at Western has advanced “by quantum leaps” since his student days, and he predicted only bigger and better things for the campus in years to come. He encouraged his faculty and staff colleagues to spend more time communicating and celebrating the achievements of their students and of the institution.
“We don’t realize how good we are at the College,” Thompson said. “There is a reason that we are the No. 7 community college in the country. It’s because of the people who have been attracted to this school…(who) make a contribution. I think this place has a wonderful future, but it’s going to depend on people and relationships. I don’t think we talk enough about how good we are and about the achievements of our students.”
At Western’s annual Thunder Awards ceremony, which recognizes faculty and staff achievement, Thompson received an Extra Mile Award for Faculty. On May 14, one day before his final Commencement, his friends surprised him with the gift of a bristlecone pine tree, which will be planted in his honor on the campus grounds. The choice of bristlecone has special meaning for Thompson, as it is believed to be one of the longest-living organisms on Earth.