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Jacqueline Thompson at Wesley on Grand

6/5/2024

Jacqueline Thompson is an ordained elder in the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) and is pastor at both Burns UMC and St. John’s UMC. She grew up in Dayton, Ohio, a town that could be Des Moines’ twin sister in some of its similarities yet is quite different in others. Thompson lived two full and distinctly different lives professionally. We invited her to lunch, and she asked to meet in the Serenity Room of Wesley on Grand. 

Wesley on Grand is a retirement center that includes both the Chamberlain Pub and a seven-room B&B that are open to everyone. That pub is our choice as Des Moines’ best for ambiance, housed in the historic D.S. Chamberlain House, designed by William George Rantoul and exemplary of Jacobean Revival architecture. 

Jacobean architecture is fondly known as “Tudor architecture on steroids.” The building features five gables, three tall chimneys and one of the best-looking patios in Iowa, surrounded by gardens. 

What was growing up in Dayton like for a late boomer? 

“Dayton schools were segregated until the (Green vs. County Board of Kent County) Supreme Court decision in 1968. I was one of the first members of the ninth-grade class at John H. Patterson High School. Dayton complied with the court first at Patterson and only with the ninth-grade class initially. My class was 40% non-white, the same ratio as Dayton’s population then. They brought in Black teachers for the first time. 

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“But students segregated themselves with their feet. In the cafeteria, Blacks sat with Blacks and whites with whites. Except for me and my lifelong friend Sally. We shared an important commonality. We were the only ones who brought brown bag lunches. So we ate by ourselves. No one Black or white ever joined us. I still wonder why. 

“Even at our 25th reunion, it was the same thing. At our 50th, Sally and I were still the mixed pair. Some people look for differences, and others look for similarities. Some things change, and some things never will.”

John H. Patterson founded NCR, a company that dominated Dayton until AT&T absorbed it. Was it appropriate or ironic that a school named for him was the trailblazer of integration?

“NCR had an unofficial reputation for never hiring Black people. My father, an engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, applied for many jobs there and never heard back. Even on ‘Guest Day’ when NCR had a big open house for the ‘whole city,’ no Blacks were included. Of course, it was not a written rule; it was just implied. Restaurants, country clubs and businesses were all that way then.”

Thompson’s education was geared toward a career in music. Was she religious growing up? 

“Yes. My father’s family were AME going way back.”

Yet she went to University of Dayton, a Roman Catholic college? 

“That wasn’t my first choice. I wanted to go to Morris Brown in Atlanta. My mom said, ‘No way.’ She thought I could do better than a Black school. She didn’t want me going there or to (nearby Black college) Wilberforce.” 

After earning a bachelor’s degree in music at University of Dayton and master’s and doctoral degrees in musical arts from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory, Jacquelyn operated the Potpourri Fine Arts Academy in Ottumwa for 25 years. What was that like?

“I always had a little rebel in me. I’m just not a rule follower, so I started my own school. I still have a couple students who are dancing professionally, and one is a concertmaster. I directed a multicultural academy in everything down to the food. I taught them to try everything once. They had never eaten cucumber sandwiches, then they loved them. We had English High Teas, and students could invite someone. That was exciting for them, to serve a grandmother high tea. We kept things affordable by teaching them tailoring skills so costumes could be reused. Those things were all good lessons.”

A personal crisis changed her life when her husband died. 

“He was Italian, came from San Giorgio outside Milan. When he died, I heard a calling for personal change. I had forgotten it, but my mother reminded me that I wanted to be a pastor when I was growing up. So, I went to the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.”

Van Buren County is unique in Iowa. The county advertises itself as the only county in Iowa with no stop lights. Lots of artists moved there for its off-the-beaten-path lifestyle.

“Yes, I partnered with (singer/songwriter) Greg Brown for the Iowa Sesquicentennial on his ‘Walkin’ Beans.’ (Painter) Wendell Mohr’s son was a student of mine. It’s a special place. The road between Bonaparte and Farmington had every other house alternating between Presbyterians and Methodists. It made sense to unite them someway.

“They were not sold on merging the churches even for a little while. I asked them what they were going to do in heaven, tell God they wanted separate rooms?”

Thompson has also led churches in Fort Madison, Clear Lake and several parts of Des Moines. 

“They are all different. I tell myself I’m assigned to a parish, not a church. I think my job is everything I do in a community. Farmington was the most receptive to me as a Black pastor. St. John and Burns are very different. I preach at both every Sunday. Burns is my first African-American parish, and I love that.”

Thompson believes travel is educational. 

“Sometimes you have to leave in order to learn what you left behind. I remember seeing brains on a menu in South America the first time. I wondered why I had never seen that in the U.S. Brains are good, not minerally like other organ meats. The more you travel, the more you learn about the place you come from. Barry Gordy left for L.A., but many of the Motown artists still live in Detroit. Stevie Wonder still raises money for projects there.”

Is this her last stop?

“I always thought I would move back to Ottumwa. But I learned I am a city girl. I need what Des Moines gives me. But you should never be too sure about anything.” ♦

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