By Leo Cabral
Oliver Thompson has been thought of as an agent for change and justice throughout the Southern California Community but, like many, made his home in the Inland Empire.
He lived through segregation in educational institutions and the civil rights movement and used his life experiences to navigate his career and his interactions with the world around him.
“(High school) prepared us to go out and be a successful American in society,” he said to Viewpoints in a 2015 interview. “In spite of your skin color, in spite of the fact that you still had ‘white’ and ‘colored’ water fountains, and you were still expected to sit at the back of the bus.”
Thompson died Jan. 19 in Riverside where he spent much of his time educating.
He was a criminal justice instructor at Riverside City College, where he taught for over 50 years, starting as part-time faculty Nov. 1, 1971 and transitioning to full-time Aug. 27, 1999 until his retirement Jan. 12 this year.
Many students remember him fondly as a prominent and active voice at RCC.
“You inspired positive change in the masses,” former student Luis A. Bolaños said in a Facebook post about Thompson’s death. “One person CAN (sic) make a positive difference! Rest in Peace Chief.”
He was a beloved friend and community member throughout Riverside Community College District. Many faculty and staff remember him as a close confidant and dear friend.
“Dr. Thompson was someone I respected greatly and will never forget,” sociology instructor Eduardo “Eddie” Perez said. “One of his greatest lessons to many of us is to never give up the good fight and to alway(s) fight for what’s right, even in the face of adversity.”
Before he taught full-time at RCC he served as chief deputy, among other positions, with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department from 1965 to 1992 and as chief of police for the Inglewood Police Department from 1992 to 1997.
Prior to his career in law enforcement he spent four years in the U.S. Air Force.
“I was lucky enough to have Dr. Thompson as my professor,” Desiree Reyes said, an officer with the RCCD Police Department. “He was a true motivator and believer of what he was teaching. Years passed and I became a police officer for (the) RCCD Police Department.”
From lecturing about prisons to participating in community forums, Thompson was known as willing to educate and support those around him.
“He would always hold the administration accountable,” RCC President Gregory Anderson said. “And he would always do that in a very powerful way, but never in a rude way. Never demeaning.”
Many knew him as the kind of instructor that always made time for his students and colleagues.
“Sometimes those of us in his hallway could hear his booming voice helping students over the phone, or his laughter chatting with students and colleagues in the halls, but also his insistence to students that they could meet the challenge in front of them,” English instructor Kelly Douglass said. “And to colleagues — Oliver poking his head in your office to offer a word of support or concern or just to grab a snack could be the moment to turn a rough day around.”
The influence he had on his community continues to this day.
“It’s hard to put into words the admiration and respect I hold for him,” said Debbie Cazares, an instructor and department chair of School of Education and Teacher Preparation. “He lived through so much, and those experiences made him into the incredible person that he was. I learned so much from him and am grateful that we crossed paths. He is already missed.”
He was born on March 20, 1942 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was raised by his grandmother, great grandmother and great aunt. Thompson raised four children of his own.
He briefly taught at UCLA, UC Riverside, CSU Los Angeles and CSU San Bernardino.
There will be a viewing for Thompson Feb. 15 from 4-8 p.m. at Acheson & Graham Garden of Prayer Mortuary located at 7944 Magnolia Ave. A graveside service will be held the following day from 10-11 a.m. at Riverside National Cemetery located at 22495 Van Buren Blvd.