OBITUARY: Thomo: determined, talented and born leader
IT MAY seem a remarkable feat for champion oarsman Greg Thompson to have been a the helm of Grafton rowing for around 20 years, but for this born leader it was something he trained for all his life.
Thompson, who died on November 12 aged 74, was one of a dedicated band of rowing enthusiasts who nursed the sport through its transition from flood rescue to a full blown sport in the 1960s and 70s.
It was his work and vision, along with other luminaries like current Grafton Rowing Club captain Ken Maughan and Jeff Schneider that transformed the club to a powerhouse capable of hosting international teams training for the 2000 Olympic games.
He was also an integral part of the club's determination to establish the Grafton Head of the River rowing regatta, which has attracted the leading rowing schools in Sydney, Brisbane and other parts of Australia to compete on the Clarence each December.
It brought him countless honours in rowing competitions, including competing in the Worlds Masters Games in Canada and Australia.
And his determination and work ethic made him a successful businessman in Grafton first as a tradesman, then a tile retailer for more than 40 years.
Thompson's wife of 50 years, Kay Thompson, said her husband's first boss, Grafton businessman Sid Samuels, spotted his leadership talents as a teenager.
"Greg left school as a 13-year-old to start work as a roof tiler," she said.
"But he didn't like that much, so when he had a chance to switch jobs to work as a hard plasterer for Siddie Samuels, he took it.
"Siddie was a pretty big deal in those days and he got lots of contracts around the state.
"That's how Greg and I met, when he was part of Siddie's team working on the construction of the Lismore Base Hospital in the mid 1960s."
Kay said her husband did so much work for Samuels, travelling around NSW, he became his legal guardian.
"Greg really enjoyed the lifestyle travelling around and Sid could see something in him," she said.
"When he was about 18 Siddie put him in charge of a group of men working on a job.
"There were a few older men in the group who didn't like the idea of taking orders from a teenager.
"Siddie just said to them, 'Greg's your boss. If you don't like it, you can leave'."
Kay remembers meeting the dashing boarder, who moved in next door to her family home in Lismore to work on the hospital in 1965.
" I don't know exactly how it happened, but we started talking and it just went from there," she said.
"When his dad, Reg, died in 1967, people were saying "Thomo, come back home.
"In 1968 he moved back to Grafton and opened his own cement rendering and tiling business."
It meant plenty of travelling for Kay, coming to Grafton to spend weekends with her boyfriend.
"Greg had this Ford Falcon to get around," she said. "I would come over here and if we was working away, I would drive it home and bring it back the next weekend.
Once Greg was back in Grafton it was not long before the proposition came.
"It happened in July at the Garden Theatre," Kay said. "All I can remember was how cold it was. It was a freezing place in the winter."
By the end of the year Greg and Kay were married.
"It was a short and sweet and sweet engagement," Kay said. "But we had 51 years together."
Kay always knew she would have to share her husband with his other love: rowing.
"I think he rowed every day of his life from the moment he was old enough to get out on the river," she said. "It was in his blood."
Even as the effects of dementia were taking hold in his last years, the desire to get back rowing was strong.
"When his 'little mate' Ken Maughan would come to see him, he would always say 'we're going to get back rowing again, aren't we?'"
Thompson was a member of the Grafton Rowing Club from the age of 11 when rowing was synonymous with flood boats.
In a Daily Examiner article in 2005, by Jennifer Huxley, Thompson recalled his days as a cox in the rowing boats battling raging flood water as crews made rescues and deliveries of supplies to stranded people.
"Rowing has evolved a lot in terms of the boats and equipment, but in a lot of ways it's much the same as in the 1880s," he said.
"It's a wonderful sport, it's very social and is physically incredibly good for you.
"Rowing tends to go through trends, originally rowers competed for purses and made side wagers, so the money attracted a lot of athletes. These days the prizemoney isn't there, so it's a matter of people embracing it as a way of keeping fit and active."
Thompson was an example of someone whose dedication to the sport kept him fit and active even against the odds.
Two severe car accidents more than a decade apart which damaged his spine, shoulder surgery that went disastrously wrong and late onset diabetes could have ended his rowing career at any time since the 1970s.
Instead he came back each time, fighting off the doctors orders, desperate to get back onto the water to compete.
"After the shoulder surgery, the doctors told him this time his rowing days were over," Kay said.
"He was determined to prove them wrong. Even though his shoulder was fused so that one arm had less movement than the other, he found a way to make it work."
His good mate and rowing partner of 40 years, Ken Maughan, teamed with him in a sculls event in Canada, amazed that his friend was still able to compete.
"He had a fused neck and a fused back from injuries he had from a couple of car accidents," he said.
"But he and I made it to the finals of the E double sculls.
"With him being tall and rowing bowside and me so short, I was very happy just to make the final."
The accidents only curtailed his rowing career, but they ensured a change of direction in business.
"The kids (Shane and Sharon) came along in 1970 and 71, then he had the first of his accidents in 1972 when a truck drove into the car on the pool corner," she said.
"He had one vertabrae fused in his back, then in 1974 they had to fuse two more.
"Gradually he recovered and had to go back to work to keep the income coming in with two children."
In 1982 a second car accident left him with lower back injuries, which the doctors told him made manual work dangerous, so the couple ventured into the retail tile business.
"In 1984 we decided to give tile retailing a go, working from underneath our house in Westlawn," she said.
"We operated from home for months until a shop became available in Pound St.
"We took the punt and set up shop there and were there for 20 years until we decided to retire in 2004."
Tiling must come naturally to the Thompson family, as Greg's grandson Shannon is setting the world alight with his skills, literally.
In August Shannon competed in the National WorldSkills competition in Melbourne, where he won a bronze medal in his class.
Sadly Thompson's dementia had advanced so that he could not fully comprehend his grandson's achievement.
"We showed him the award, but he couldn't really understand what it all meant," Kay said. "He just knew Shannon had done something good."
Greg Thompson was born in Grafton on December 15, 1942, to Reginald and Edwina Thompson.
He is survived by his wife, Kay, their children Shane and Sharon and the grandchildren. He has a brother and a sister John and Janelle, who are twins 13 years his junior.