Larry (Lawrence) Thompson was a beloved American humor columnist and newspaper reporter for 28 years with The Miami Herald until his death in 1973.
Born on a farm in Garrison, Kansas, Thompson grew up in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where he began a newspaper career that would span almost a half-century. Thompson had the unique distinction of being selected editor of a college newspaper while he was in high school. As a senior at Stillwater High School, he was appointed editor of The O’Collegian, the student newspaper for Oklahoma A. & M. College, now Oklahoma State University, for the summer of 1929. After graduating from Oklahoma A. & M. College (where his father, Dr. Carl Thompson, was a professor of animal husbandry), he worked on newspapers throughout the United States as a reporter, including the Daily Oklahoman, The Philadelphia Record and the New York Herald Tribune. In his early days, he was known as “Scoop” Thompson. He came to work for The Miami Herald in 1945 as a general assignment reporter.
Within a few years at The Miami Herald, Thompson earned a reputation as a top-notch reporter and rewrite man (taking notes over the phone from a reporter in the field covering an event and then quickly composing those notes into a story while on deadline). George Beebe, the late associate publisher for The Miami Herald, said of Thompson, “He was one of the best rewrite men of all times.” His award-winning reporting was recognized by the Associated Press Association of Florida and the Florida Daily Newspaper Association, among others. Many of his stories were carried on the front page of The Miami Herald, from murder trials and hurricanes to exposing secret KKK meetings in Miami.
Meanwhile, he began to write humorous personal accounts of his daily life, from taking ballroom dance lessons and attempting to drive a race car to doing dishes and keeping house as a bachelor to trying out as a lifeguard. His self-disparaging humor quickly won fans among readers. In 1950 he volunteered to take on the assignment of visiting a nudist colony on the outskirts of Miami, knowing that no clothing was permitted inside the compound. Once there, the admittedly modest and shy Thompson kept searching for the “undressing rooms.” Finally, after discarding all his clothes, he jumped into the pool where he sheepishly stayed most of the afternoon while conducting interviews.
Thompson had the rare ability to connect with readers by poking fun at himself and making them chuckle. Like another famous Oklahoman, Will Rogers, Thompson’s humor was down-to-earth and folksy. Because he wrote about his own life experiences in a personal way, his column was called “Life With Larry Thompson.” Featured in the Comics section of The Miami Herald, Thompson’s homespun column was a morning mainstay over breakfast for hundreds of thousands of readers throughout South Florida for more than two decades until his death in 1973.
In 1953 Thompson married a glamorous, out-going aviatrix, Penny Rhodes, after interviewing her for a story about women pilots and her involvement promoting international women’s air races in Miami. On April Fool’s Day, 1954, they had twins, Carl and Evellen, providing more fodder for the column. A third child, Miriam, was born almost two years later, followed over the years by a supporting cast of pets, from Caesar, the cantankerous Siamese cat, and guppies and parakeets to Troubles, the silly dachshund that would bark furiously at the door upon hearing a commotion outside, only to run and hide under the living room sofa. Readers vicariously followed the Thompson family’s daily lives, from the day the twins were brought home from the hospital, to the annual summer camping trips, graduations, school plays, holidays and birthdays
Author – Public Speaker
Thompson wrote three books. The first was about the family cat, “Life With Caesar.” While Thompson was no lover of cats, Caesar won him over. The second book was “Hogs Under My Bed” which chronicled the family’s camping trip one summer through Florida, including one night when wild pigs slept under the Thompson’s tent trailer during a rain storm. “The first time I had ever slept with pigs,” Thompson dryly noted. The third book, “Life With Larry Thompson,” a collection of Thompson’s most popular columns, was published in 1975 posthumously.
Aside from writing, Thompson was in demand as a public speaker in South Florida. His light-hearted talks, primarily to local civic and church groups, used the same recipe for success as his columns – connecting with people through humor and personal, self-deprecating anectodes they could relate to. Thompson was featured on The Miami Herald’s float in the Orange Bowl Parade on New Year’s Eve 1964.
Death and Legacy
On February 18, 1973 at the age of 61, Thompson died from his life-long battle with emphysema, the result of cigarette smoking, a habit he tried to quit numerous times after repeated hospital visits. Thompson’s obituary the next day in The Miami Herald began on page one and took most of an entire inside page.
At the funeral a few days later, the audience filled Bryan Memorial United Methodist Church in Coconut Grove, Florida, to hear moving and poignant eulogies from Thompson’s Miami Herald colleagues, two of whom were Pulitzer Prize winners. Lee Hills, then publisher of The Miami Herald and a Pulitzer Prize winner, said of Thompson, “He was one of the best writers any newspaper ever had, and when the opportunity came for him to write a regular column, he did it with a grace and wit and a human touch which his multitude of followers will long remember.” George Bebee, then associate publisher of The Miami Herald, said, “This man had a unique personality and talent — which you find only once in many lifetimes.” Gene Miller, the legendary investigative reporter who won two Pulitzers at The Miami Herald, said, “Larry possessed the rare ability to see himself – and you and me — as we are, our failings, our insecurities and make us accept and forgive and laugh….By newstype on a comic page, he was a conduit of warmth….Larry was a natural wit, a perceptive and sensitive man.”
Syndicated columnist and best-selling author (The Day Christ Died, The Day Lincoln Was Shot), Jim Bishop, wrote about Thompson, “I was amazed at the enormous number of readers he could hold in the palm of his hand. His work always read as though it were done without effort – without strain – as though he and his readers were one person, slightly amused at the great American family. There is this difference between Larry and the rest of us; we are happy to know our stuff is read. But Larry Thompson’s readers LOVED him as well. It must be wonderful to be held in personal affection by hundreds of thousands of people; people Larry never met.”
Because of his love for nature and flowering trees, readers donated to a fund sponsored by The Miami Herald to plant flowering trees in honor of the beloved Thompson along I-95 in Miami. Arbor Day that year resulted in thousands of flowering trees being planted throughout Miami to honor Thompson. The Dade County Youth Fair named its annual creative writing award after Thompson, an honor that continues to this day every spring when the award is presented.
Thompson’s wife, Penny, died two and a half years later from acute leukemia in 1975. A few months later, at the urging of son Carl Thompson, then 21 years old, the Metro Dade County Commission unanimously voted to name what would become the county’s largest park and campground in their honor — the Larry and Penny Thompson Memorial Park and Campground. In a letter to Carl Thompson, Metro Dade County Mayor Stephen P. Clark noted that as an avid reader of Larry Thompson’s column over the years, “I vicariously helped raise you and your sisters.”
Adjacent to Zoo Miami, the 270-acre park is located at 12451 SW 184th St. in Miami. It features a seven-acre lake, miles of bike trails and 240 campsites and a pool for campers.
In 2012, Carl Thompson donated his father’s portable typewriter along with photographs and other family memorabilia to the park. These are on display in the campground office.
Born: November 20, 1911
Died: February 18, 1973 (age 61)
Mother: Mrs. Ellen Thompson
Father: Dr. Carl P. Thompson, professor of animal husbandry at Oklahoma A. & M. College (Oklahoma State University) and public speaker throughout Oklahoma and Kansas.
Residence: Coconut Grove (Miami), Florida
Education: Oklahoma A. & M. College (Oklahoma State University) – BS in History
Occupation: Newspaper reporter, author, public speaker and humor columnist.
Best Known For: Daily humor column “Life With Larry Thompson” for more than two decades in The Miami Herald.