How do you skewer someone who is so legendary and so respected in a community that no one can be found to say a bad word about him?
That was the problem for former and current Indio High School teachers, administrators and students Wednesday night as about 200 people gathered for a “roast” of Paul Thompson. Thompson is a 40-year Rajah, four years as a student and 36 as a teacher, coach and athletic director.
Through tears and laughter, Thompson was honored at the Indio Performing Arts Center Wednesday for a purpose other than just making fun of his lanky body, white hair or deep voice. The evening raised money for a college scholarship fund at the Boys and Girls Club of the Coachella Valley named after another former Rajah, former Los Angeles Angels general manager and now Major League Baseball executive Tony Reagins.
Reagins, a 1985 Indio graduate who has an alumni association at the Boys and Girls Club, said he credits the ability to use the facilities and programs at Boys and Girls Club in his youth with helping to keep him and his friends on the straight and narrow and avoiding trouble away from school. The money raised during the evening will help the club hand out scholarships to desert youths headed to college.
Thompson was more than happy to be the target of jabs for the sake of the scholarship fund, and his long-time friends and colleagues were more than happy to hurl the jabs at the kind, gentle and respected Thompson. From comments about his age to his hair to how he clearly married up with his wife Nancy, Thompson chuckled for most of the night at good-natured attempts to tear down the legend. Former colleagues like Doug Gillund, Tim Robertson and Rudy Ramirez and event organizer Dave Ison were joined by former students like Reagins and David Patino on stage. Some of those who talked came from as far as Arizona and New York City to show their thanks and honor Thompson.
Ramirez, now principal of Indio High School, tried to tell the audience that Thompson was actually heartless back when Ramirez was a student at Bishop Amat High School in La Puente and Thompson was a young teacher. Ramirez wanted to play golf for the school, but there was no golf team. Ramirez convinced the school to start a team, with Thompson as the new coach.
“And he cut me,” Ramirez laughed. “That’s the real Paul Thompson.”
But inevitably, the talked turned to Thompson’s more obvious characteristics. The words hero, friend and mentor were used more than a few times during the night. There was talk of his successful run as an Indio coach and his championship boys’ basketball teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s in the tough Desert Valley League. There was talk of how important Thompson had been in his students’ and colleagues’ lives and how, in all truth, not one really had a bad word to say about Thompson.
Thompson sat at the front table with his wife, children and grandchildren, taking all the ribbing and the praise in stride in his typical low-key manner. He then had a chance at the end to throw out a few barbs himself. But as was true with the barbs toward Thompson, Thompson’s retorts were good-natured and full of appreciation for those who came to honor him.
The roast was well done, but the guest of honor escaped barely charred at all.
Larry Bohannan is a Desert Sun sports columnist. He can be reached at (760) 778-4633 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at @Larry_Bohannan.