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Faculty Profile: Charles W. N. Thompson

Charles W. N. Thompson’s curriculum vitae is one you might expect from a respected engineer/attorney/consultant whose career spans nearly seven decades. The 28-page resume documents a diverse education – law degree from Harvard, MBA from Ohio State, and PhD from Northwestern – and a varied career, from Air Force engineer to business consultant to a 40-plus-year professorship in McCormick’s Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences.

Then there’s Thompson’s “Vernacular Version of Vita,” a one-page summary he wrote to highlight his less highfalutin accomplishments.

“Got kicked out of kindergarten,” the list begins.

Thompson takes great pride in relaying the rabble-rousing tales of his youth – and the rabble-rousing tales of his adulthood. He says he was wrongfully kicked out of college in the early ‘40s for lighting a fire in a dorm room; school officials let him back in when his classmates signed a petition on his behalf. (He maintains that he didn’t start the fire, though he admits to several other indiscretions in his early adulthood.) After serving in World War II he attended graduate school, where, he says, he “majored in gin rummy, bridge, and poker.” His professional life sounds equally intriguing: he worked as a spy and as a criminal attorney before starting an illustrious career in engineering.

Then again, it’s hard to know what to believe.

“I’m a storyteller,” says Thompson.

Luckily, Thompson’s engineering skills are well documented. From his early childhood Thompson was expected to become a lawyer – “I was scheduled to go to law school when I was 3 years of age,” he says – but service in the Air Force during World War II put him on a new course to becoming an industrial engineer. After the war ended he graduated from law school, but he was recalled to active duty just a year later with the Strategic Air Command, where he spent nearly two years as a strike team member. It was the early 1950s, and World War II had sparked great organizational advances in the fields of operations research, systems engineering, and counter-measures. Still, he and his team faced great efficiencies and a serious lack of equipment.

 “These aircrafts would land and instead of going to the taxi strip, they would stop at the end of the runway,” Thompson recalls. “People would run out, take the antennas off the plane, then run over to another plane and put the antennas on so it could take off.”

These problems prompted General Curtis E. LeMay to send Thompson and three other men to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where they were charged with accelerating the procurement process. Once his military commitment ended, Thompson stayed on as a civilian; in total, he remained at the base for six years and was promoted to the title of “section chief.”

“I made major changes in system procurement,” recalls Thompson. “Some of my most important work was accomplished at Wright Field.”

After 12 years working in industry, Thompson moved on to academia. He received his PhD from Northwestern and accepted a faculty position shortly thereafter. But the McCormick that Thompson joined in the 1960s bears little resemblance to the McCormick of today. Notably, he says, women were scarce among both faculty and PhD students, something that was characteristic of the time but troubling to Thompson. He says he has worked to improve those numbers. Throughout his career, nearly half his PhD candidates have been women; at one point, he says, a National Science Foundation researcher said he was among the top engineering professors in the country in terms of the number of female PhDs he had produced.

Thompson’s contributions to his department have been noteworthy. Barry Nelson, chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences, calls Thompson a “pioneer” in “field research methods” – the process of improving organizations and systems by observing and surveying them, rather than running experiments on them.

“How does one remain active and relevant over such a long career?  By doing many things, and also being willing to try something new,” says Nelson. “Charles has been a researcher; he has taught at all levels, from undergraduate to graduate to professional masters; he has continued to develop new courses; and he has been active in the business of the University.”

Thompson continues to teach, even introducing new or radically changing courses; four years ago, he introduced Methods, Standards and Work Design (IEMS 210) to teach students the foundations of the industrial engineering practice. He is especially revered for his Systems Project Management course (IEMS 392), a class in which students apply project management methods to a real-world system. Outside the classroom, he continues to serve as secretary at McCormick faculty meetings. And he continues to relay stories, from the earliest days of the IEMS department to the 1,000 hours he logged on an RB-36 strategic reconnaissance aircraft during the Korean War.

“One of the advantages of being old is that a whole lot of people you know are dead,” Thompson said, “They can’t defend themselves.”