Archive for September, 2012

No Ordinary Father

Friday, September 21st, 2012

I’ve been thinking about my Dad (Rev. Alfred C Thompson) a lot lately. Mostly I keep thinking of asking his advice on things but of course I can’t do that anymore. As I thought about him this morning I decided to post the notes for the talk I gave at his memorial service.


My Dad was a man of many hats; many roles in life. He used to tell me that many people knew about some of his hats, a few people know of many of his hats but only very few knew about all of them. Over the last few years Dad filled me in on history I hadn’t previously known. I thought today I would share some of this with you.

My Dad was first a son. The second child of immigrants from Norway his first language was Norwegian. He learned English through immersion when he started public school. Many people don’t know that he took a two year hiatus from college to help take care of his mother who was in poor health. Others who know that he served in the Navy for three years of World War II don’t know that his first war related service was working for the Norwegian government in exile in New York. A service that included recording messages in Norwegian for broadcast to occupied Norway.

He did join the Navy once he was old enough. There he drove landing craft delivering soldiers and Marines to the beach for seven different island invasions in the war in the Pacific. One medal he was particularly proud of was the Philippine Liberation medal which was awarded by the government of the Philippines. It seems like he was constantly running into nurses from the Philippines and they always got to hear about that medal.

After the war he spent some time crewing sailing yachts but eventually settled down enough to attend Taylor University. At Taylor he not only got a great education but met my mother, Louise Penner. After getting married and graduation the plan was for Dad to get a degree in theology before heading for a career teaching Philosophy. That plan was cut short by my impending arrival. So Dad became a part-time pastor of the East Hampton Methodist church and worked on his degree part-time. My parents were to have two more children before the family moved to Brooklyn where the last of four children was born.

After a long illness my mother passed away leaving my Dad to raise four children alone. When I tell people that my Dad was no ordinary father they often assume that I mean because single fathers were rare in those days but that is only a small part of it. Ordinary fathers send their children to summer camp. My Dad sent the whole neighborhood to summer camp. For two weeks every summer the neighborhood was quiet as literally dozens of kids went to the Adirondacks to attend Word of Life camps. Many of these children, including myself, started their serious Christian lives at that camp. Dad raised money from civic organizations all year long to help pay for camp fees and transportation.

Also during the years in Brooklyn my Dad joined the Navy Reserve as a chaplain. There he eventually rose to the rank of Captain and only age forced retirement kept him from making admiral according to the Navy’s chief of chaplains. Dad’s other chaplain ministry was to the New York City Fire Department.

Dad’s day was a 24 hour 7 day a week affair. At any time of the day or night the phone might ring or a knock on the door would indicate someone in need of help. I’ll never forget one night around 11 answering the door to see a fireman in uniform who asked “is the chaplain available?” And he was. At any time to anyone who needed him.

Dad took over a hospital once. He was appointed by a bankruptcy judge to take over as the administrator of a hospital in Chapter 11. A year and a half later the hospital was in the black and a permanent administrator took over. And oh yes he kept up a full load of work as the pastor of a church as well as his Navy and Fire Department responsibilities. I’m not sure he slept. At least most of us kids had mostly grown up by then. We’re still only mostly grown up by the way.

In his 60s Dad started to retire to enjoy life with his second wife, Sheila who he had supported and encouraged as she pursued her own ordination in the Method Church. First the Navy and then the full-time pastorate. He was still holding on to his role at fire chaplain when buildings came down on September 11th 2001. One night he slept in his truck a block away from the scene. He stayed at ground zero for six weeks before pneumonia forced him first to the hospital and then home. He ministered to fire fighters, rescue workers, families and helped train and prepare volunteer clergy who came from around the country to help. Having seen so much in the war and during his time as fire chaplain as well as having gone through losing two wives of his own he was uniquely qualified for this capstone event of his career.

After this Dad’s health gradually declined but for years he was active as a guest preacher in many churches. One of his great joys was participating in the weddings of several of his grandchildren. The last wedding he performed was my son and daughter in law’s wedding two years ago. And he loved it.

Father, Pastor, Fire Chaplain, Navy Chaplain, American Legion Chaplain and more. But in all things he was first and foremost a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And that is what made everything else possible.

Trying out some links and buttons

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Please excuse me while I test of few things out. BTW a reminder that Alfred Thompson’s Computer Science Teacher blog is now at Although these days I am writing more broadly about technology in education and even just education.

Think Outside The Textbook

Friday, September 14th, 2012

I was talking to a teacher, well chatting online via Facebook actually, and I described what he does as “thinking outside the textbook.” Speaking as someone who has written several textbooks I will easily admit that textbooks can be wonderful tools. They can make a teacher’s job a lot easier. They supply information, explanations, review questions and more. These days they often come with PowerPoint decks, test banks, and more. At the same time they can be limiting as well. It is easy to fall into the trap of teaching as if what is in the textbook are the only things that students need to know.

Few good teachers limit themselves to the textbooks that  students are assigned though. Most teachers I know have a collection of textbooks that they use to help them widen their curriculum. They borrow information, projects, quiz questions and more. This lets them make their courses richer and more interesting.

Computer science changes rapidly though. Textbooks change very slowly. Most districts can only buy new textbooks every five to seven years. This is hardly often enough to keep up with the latest developments in computer science.  Programming languages and integrated development environments (IDEs) seem to change annually if not more frequently. Sure you can stick with old versions and texts if you want. I know of teachers still using products that haven’t been supported let along sold in years and years. This works. Sort of.

And then there are the latest developments in application types: Games, Kinect and other new user interfaces, phone app development (I talked about this at To App or Not To App) and soon Windows 8 apps. By the time a textbook comes out that covers it there are new versions that may have breaking changes. And yet students want to learn about these things. Students often have little patience with the line “it may not be the bleeding edge but the concepts are for ever.” It’s a true statement but students always want to be current.

So what do you do? Well the easy way out is to stick with the textbooks. It’s the safe way to go. Going beyond the textbooks is scary. It’s hard work. It’s not required. So why bother and how to you do it?

First off it is exciting for students to be on the leading edge. When students are excited and motivated to learn they work harder, longer and learn more.  This is just the sort of thing that attracts more students to computer science programs. Those are some good whys.  But it is still hard.

There are resources available on the Internet to try the new things.  Lots of online documentation, sample code and even help forums. Few teachers have the time to learn this stuff before teaching it though. So what is a teacher to do? Ask their students to help them learn it!

One of the things I heard recently at an education forum was that teachers should model lifelong learning. By setting an example of being someone who is always learning new things teachers help students adopt the same attitude. For a lot of people it’s a bit scary to “give up control” by admitting that they don’t know something. It takes some courage to admit ignorance in front of teachers. Generally though students respond well to the idea of learning along side their teacher. Making the learning of a new technology a cooperative experience benefits students and teachers alike. In the long run everyone learns more.

There is more to learn than what is in the textbooks. Thinking beyond them and learning to learn with students opens new doors to learning. And best of all it helps students see lifelong learning modeled for them.

Chaplain’s Report to the Commissioner

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

My late father was the senior fire department chaplain for the New York City Fire Department at the time of 11 September 2001. This is the report he made to the NYC Fire Commissioner of his activities at that time. I thought it was time it was shared more widely.


Rev. Alfred C. Thompson

Senior Chaplain Fire Department City of New York

I arrived at Ground Zero about 11:20 a.m. September 11, 2001. The dust and smoke and ash had a brown tint and so thick that I needed to use my window wipers to see where I was going. The street seemed to be covered with two inches of ash, dust and litter papers covering the entire area. I could see flame coming out of the windows of several of the buildings.

Leaving the car I immediately put on my turn out gear and experienced difficulty in breathing. I hadn’t walked a block and my eyes began to burn from the heavy dust that had made the air a light brown in color I held a handkerchief over my mouth and nose. (The next day simple masks covering the mouth and nose were made available to those on the site. Later respirators and safety glasses were distributed to those on the site) As I walked closer to the site saw a group of firemen and asked where the triage area was located. The department had set up a triage area in the lobby of a building a block away from the WTC.

I met our Chief Medical Officer who advised me that a number of men had been removed to hospitals and that the men in the lobby had been stabilized and waiting for transport to the hospital. After visiting and ministering to each, I learned that one of our Department Chaplains, Fr. Mychal Judge, had been killed. A portion of the building had collapsed at the Command Center where he and 1st Deputy Bill Fehan and Chief of Department Peter Ganci and others were missing and presumed dead.

Firefighters had removed Chaplain Judge to St. Peter’s RC Church about 2 blocks away rather than send him to the morgue. I went to the location where Mychal had been laid on a white sheet, covered with a sheet, his badge placed on his body. Shortly thereafter Chaplain Delendeck arrived and together we knelt and prayed. I then went on to St Vincent and Bellevue hospitals to visit the firefighters who had been admitted.

About 5:00 p.m. I heard over my Handy-talkie that Building No. 7 was in danger of collapsing. Everyone within a block or two was order to evacuate the area. About 5:20pm the Handy Talky announced that the building was beginning to collapse and I ran north looking back to see the 47 story building begin to implode. Brown dust and ash began to rain down again as the floors pounded down on each other.

A number of years ago six persons fatally jumped from the Schlumberg Towers in the Bronx. Following that The FDNY began a Critical Incident Stress Training program, which I attended. Returning to Ground Zero I began inter-acting with the firefighters to minimize post-traumatic stress. There was no time for group or even individual debriefing and my ministry took on the role of trying to provide one on one support which included providing solace, encouragement, appreciation for their bravery and dedication as well as listening to them as they shared their anger, sorrow, hope, and their voluntary sharing of what they, saw, heard and their overall feelings and concerns and fears. On a number of occasions firefighters would come along side and ask for a personal prayer or request a prayer for a particular missing brother they knew. The request seemed to always indicate the personal stress the firefighter himself was facing.

That night I drove home, arriving about midnight, to bring back personal gear. I returned to Ground Zero at about 9:00 am the next day. Not having a place to stay in the city I slept in my Blazer with the front seat leaning back. Used the men’s room of the closed Marriott and went to the Command Center. Later that morning I was informed of the need for special ID. I went to the Sheraton Hotel on 53rd Street, Headquarters for FEMA and the IAFF, obtained proper identification and cell phone, to be able to communicate with that Command Center. They also arranged for me to use one of the rooms that they had set aside for their use. From there I visited the Family Center at Pier 94 returning there regularly in the early evenings after leaving Ground Zero.

As the firefighters and others began searching and digging for the missing I remained at one of the command posts relating to the firefighters who were waiting for their tour on the “hill. When it was determined that what was found might be a firefighter a request was made for the Chaplain to respond to the location. I would mount the hill of debris (sometimes four stories high) to the location where I was summoned. There I would wait and provided encouragement and solace to those standing by and the others who were passing out buckets of debris. When the body was finally retrieved it was place in a red plastic bag, then in a black body bag and placed on the stokes stretcher covering it with an American flag. As I began to pray those present removed their helmets and when the prayer was completed four firefighters would lift and carry the stokes stretcher and follow me as we left the site and proceeded to walk to the temporary morgue. While walking to the morgue firefighters, policemen and would render salutes and others would stop and remove their hard recovery had to be dug out from between debris and twisted steel. While waiting for the morgue pathologists to make preliminary identification of the remains I would wait with the “bearers” offering comfort and encouragement until the remains were then carried through an honor guard to the “bus” to be escorted to the morgue at Bellevue by two motorcycle police officers. I then accompanied the firefighters back to the command center or location where further recovery was being conducted.

Between trips to the “hill’ or “pit” to perform the above I would move between the three site Command Centers continuing to provide encouragement, solace, and appreciation to those firefighters and others who were engaged in the rescue/recovery operation. From time to time I would leave Ground Zero to attend funerals for a firefighter. But always returning to Ground Zero before going back to the hotel for the night.

On many occasions I would accompany the boat bringing families from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to the Hudson River pier, or meet them when they arrived, where they would be escorted to the southwest corner of Ground Zero to see the sight where their loved ones were still buried. After sharing knowledge about the area the family members were requested to take a brief time of silence to reflect, think about their loved ones and say in their minds and heart what they would want to share with their deceased. I would then offer and prayer and proceeded the Port Authority Memorial where the names and later pictures of missing firefighters were displayed. At that time brief comments were made indicating that as a result of these brave, dedicated firefighters who entered the buildings while guiding others to safety over 25,000 lives were saved. And then including the appreciation of the Mayor and Fire Commissioner and others. This short memorial ended with a reading of a Psalm and prayer. Members of the family then left cards, flowers and such mementos as they brought with them to leave behind before returning the boat.

I ate my meals at varied Salvation Army, Red Cross; St. Paul’s Chapel and others such as McDonald’s meal centers. This provided me with better opportunities to talk, listen, and counsel with the firefighters and others who were taking a meal or coffee break and they had more time and were open to talk, share their feelings, reactions and unburden themselves.

While our two Roman Catholic Chaplains were busy attending Masses (some days several) I spent most of my time at Ground Zero. Visiting, volunteer Chaplains were directed to me by FEMA/IAFF and the Mayor’s Office for advice/guidance as to how they could be used on the scene. Well over fifty such clergy met with me from time to time. I was asked by the OEM to come and give similar information to forty Hispanic clergymen who were given ID and permitted to enter Ground Zero.


After my first day I returned home about midnight and was back at Ground Zero by eight the next morning. From September 12th until October 14th I stayed at the Sheraton where the IAFF and FEMA had make arrangements for visiting chaplains and counselors to stay. After three and a half weeks,. On October 13th I was feeling weak and tired and when home. The next day I called my son, Erik, telling him I was having trouble walking and not feeling well. He came to pick me up and took me to the Crystal Run Health Care Center and within a half-hour I was sent by ambulance to Horton Hospital having been diagnosed with pneumonia.

I returned Ground Zero Nov 9th to continue my ministry.