- May 20, 2020
Bob Thompson had several careers in his lifetime and was successful at each of them. He was a high school business and accounting teacher, lay minister, drive-in church pastor and florist — and made deep and lasting friendships along the way.
Robert Foy Thompson, a Winter Garden native, died Nov. 17, 2020, at age 85, leaving behind a wife of 53 years and multiple generations of students and teachers who always remembered his kindness, trustworthiness and passion for business.
Thompson had graduated from Florida Southern College with a degree in business and had two years of teaching under his belt when he took a position with Orange County Public Schools and taught English, keyboarding, accounting and other businesses classes at Lakeview High School, in Winter Garden.
As the business department grew, Thompson was tasked with hiring seven new teachers, including his future wife, Dixie Birdsong Thompson. By the end of the school year, a group of female students convinced Thompson to ask out the English teacher, Ms. Birdsong.
“They took credit for our marriage,” she said, laughing. “They loved Mr. Thompson, and they felt comfortable enough to do that.”
She recalled his old-fashioned way of teaching typing on manual typewriters and said she could hear him calling out the letters to his class from the second floor because the school lacked air-conditioning and all the windows were opened when the weather allowed.
In the 1960s, married couples couldn’t teach at the same school, so Bob Thompson taught at Evans High for a few years until his wife gave birth to their first child — and then he returned to his position at Lakeview.
When West Orange High School opened in 1976, Bob Thompson made the transition with his high school students.
“The people who worked with him always enjoyed (that) he was so laid back and humorous,” Dixie Thompson said. “He’s so reserved and not outgoing at all, but if he’s in a small group and comfortable, he was a riot.”
Thompson taught at Lakeview at a time when teachers rarely transferred to other schools. The business department consisted of Thompson, who was chairman, and several longtime teachers, including Gay Annis, for 32 years, and Anne Copeland, for 27.
Copeland and Thompson shared a classroom for years, and this gave her the opportunity to witness his teaching style and sense of humor. Students called him Mr. T., she said, which proves he was approachable and down-to-earth.
“He taught by plans but could also change them immediately to create more interest and fun,” she said. “One time when I was out of my side of our shared classroom, he thought it would be fun to hide my students. … Many months later, I got back at him when I hid his class.”
She recalled the time they were teaching separate keyboard classes in the same room.
“We were dictating at the same time, but I had a louder voice, so finally he told his students in his half of the room to just type what I was dictating,” she said.
Annis said Bob Thompson was a superb teacher.
“He had a kind heart, and I don’t remember a student ever saying anything negative about him,” she said. “He was just a gentleman and thoughtful and kind and fun, and he was a good teacher. … He was involved in the students’ lives, he was a very positive role model, and he was a fine Christian man, and it was quite obvious. And he had his fun time. He had his sense of humor, and he used it. And he very dependable. He was just a great guy and one of my dearest friends. … He was a treasure.”
Bob Thompson’s plan to retire was delayed for eight years when then-Principal Sarah Jane Turner asked him to head an experiment in the business department. He developed a model office suite with a conference table and modules for each student to represent a true work situation, and he wrote all the lesson plans.
“When they moved to computers, he said he was going to retire, but he didn’t,” Dixie Thompson said. “He learned computers.”
After 44 years of instilling in students his knowledge of accounting, shorthand, typing and business math, Bob Thompson retired in 2003.
“One thing that really sticks out in my memory is how parents trusted him,” Dixie Thompson said. “We were eating in downtown Winter Garden, and a father thanked Bob for helping his daughter. Those kinds of things are so touching, and when we would go places, people would say, ‘You taught me to type,’ ‘You inspired me to go into accounting.’”
Bob Thompson also went into business with his brother, Jerry Thompson, and the two owned and operated Shaw’s Flowers & Gifts in two locations in downtown Winter Garden.
“Our children … spent their childhoods in the flower shop,” Dixie Thompson said. “He taught all day; worked in the flower shop in the afternoons, evenings and weekends; and he also for a few years taught night school. And, too, he was filling in with the kids because I was working in Winter Park, and he would pick up the kids and have dinner ready when I came home.”
She likened her husband to a big, gentle teddy bear and said he was always a gentleman.
“We had a wonderful marriage of 53 years, and I don’t think I realized how wonderful it was. … People always said, ‘Do you realize how lucky you are?’”
Dixie Thompson said her husband attended seminary with plans to become a Methodist pastor when they were first married. He served as a lay pastor in Center Hill and Mascot for five years before deciding he wanted to do something else.
Ultimately, he returned to the field part-time when he served as the pastor of the Drive-In Church, held for two decades at the old Starlite Drive-In movie theater located on East Plant Street. He worked alongside Duck Teal and George VanDemark, and each week he climbed up the ladder to the top of the projector house and spoke to the small congregation.
“He always had that heart of a pastor,” Dixie Thompson said. “He loved teaching, he loved (God’s) word. … It fit his gifts, I think. The Lord opened the door, and it was the right one. … He had such a giving, compassionate heart, he just had such a style that was very heartwarming.”
The Thompsons joined the First United Methodist Church of Winter Garden about 11 years ago, and it was here that they made some of their closest friends. Bob Thompson, who had a gift for storytelling, wrote a sermon reflection each week, often including personal bits of his life and the lessons he learned.
“He wrote about 200 of those, and I read back over those, and it helped me remember a lot of things I would have otherwise forgotten,” Dixie Thompson said. “He pulled from a lot of his life and tied it to scripture.”
Copeland also recalled his love for his church.
“Bob was a Godly man, family man and loving man,” Copeland said. “He taught me a great deal about life. … Twenty-seven years working with him created an environment of unexpected activities, cooperation, creativity, family and love. The department at WOHS that he created is the reason I never moved to another high school.”
Thompson was born June 2, 1935, in his grandmother’s house in Winter Garden, to T.F. and Willie Thompson. He grew up in Clermont, where his family owned a furniture business and later Circle T Ranch and Groves. He was preceded in death by a brother and his son, Thaddaeus Todd Thompson.
In addition to his wife, Dixie Birdsong Thompson, he is survived by his daughter, Susan Totera, and her husband, Erik; and four grandchildren, Reilly Guhr, Reid Guhr, Renna Guhr and Gia Stapp-Thompson.
A service celebrating Thompson’s life will be held in February. Details will be posted on the website of Winter Oak Funeral Home and Cremations as they become available.
“He was a priceless, unique gift from God to me,” Dixie Thompson said. “He was a wonderful daddy; he loved family. If he just knew his family was safe each night, he was happy. He treasured his grandchildren. … He was a wonderful man.”