Raymond H. Thompson (1924-2020)

Raymond H. Thompson in 1982, in front ASM's north building on the University of Arizona campus. ASM photo collections.

Raymond Harris Thompson, Jr., PhD, director emeritus of the Arizona State Museum (ASM), former head of the Department of Anthropology, and professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Arizona (UA), died peacefully on January 29 in Tucson, surrounded by family and enveloped in the affection of so many who held him in high esteem. He was 95.

Thompson served the University of Arizona with dedication and distinction for 41 years, from July 1, 1956 to June 30, 1997. For 32 of those years, he served as director of the Arizona State Museum. For the first 16 of those years, he served simultaneously as head of the Department (now School) of Anthropology. In 1980 he was appointed Fred A. Riecker Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, the university’s first endowed professorship.

Current ASM director, Dr. Patrick D. Lyons, reflects on his predecessor in this way: “When I think of Raymond H. Thompson, one word comes to mind: giant. I was fortunate to have Ray as a mentor for so long. I’ll always have his great example to guide me in scholarship, museum administration, and cultural heritage stewardship. He was a man of giant intellect, prophetic vision, unequaled diplomacy, never-failing graciousness, and infinite wisdom. I am as humbled as I am inspired by his legacy.”

Current School of Anthropology director, Dr, Diane Austin, adds, “Not only was he a respected scholar, teacher, administrator, and leader, but he was a wonderful human being. We will miss his genuine smile, clever wit, meticulous dress, sage advice, and passion for anthropology, students, and excellence.”

The admin suite at the Department of Anthropology, 1970. Left to right: Harriet Martin, Vearl Galbraith, and Dr. Raymond H. Thompson. ASM photo collections.

Department Administration (1964-80)

Thompson was responsible for heading the Department of Anthropology at a time of incredible growth in American higher education, which peaked during the late 1960s and early seventies. During that period, with enrollment increasing at the rate of more than 40 percent per semester, Thompson oversaw the growth of the anthropology faculty from 14 to 40 individuals. In addition to many notable male faculty, he took advantage of that growth to set the pace for University of Arizona social sciences in hiring, retaining, and promoting female faculty members. Under Thompson’s leadership, anthropology also was instrumental in the development of UA programs for Native Americans, culminating in the creation of the program in American Indian Studies, and was involved in the early stages of the development of Africana Studies, Mexican American Studies, and the University of Arizona Press. Thompson’s commitment to diversity also included fostering a climate within which students would be exposed to many theoretical approaches to interpreting the past. During the years following WWII and well into his tenure as department head, the University of Arizona was providing approximately 25% of the trained archaeologists across the United States, and many of them went on to spread the Arizona attitude toward archaeology all over the country.

For more, see https://anthropology.arizona.edu/content/thompson-and-department-anthropology

Museum Management (1964-97)

Thompson’s achievements in academic administration and teaching were equaled by his achievements in museum management and culture resource protection.

In the late 1960s, there were no national standards for museums. This lack of professional guidelines hampered Thompson’s ability to justify requests for larger budgets from university administration—there was simply nothing to cite. When he and others approached the American Association of Museums (AAM) about this, AAM formed committees to draft the nation’s first set of professional standards and best practices, and Thompson eventually wound up in charge of one of them. Today, museums must successfully navigate an extremely rigorous, peer-reviewed process to achieve AAM accreditation and less than 4% of the institutions in the country bear this mark of professionalism. ASM was one of the first museums in the nation to attain this status, being accredited in 1972.

A key component of the new national standards was recognition of the need for conservation of collections to be conducted by professional conservators. Seeing that there were few conservation labs devoted to objects housed in anthropology museums beyond the Smithsonian Institution, Thompson was successful in requesting, justifying, and establishing the state’s first conservation laboratory at ASM. He reasoned that ASM was well-positioned to develop a world-class conservation program in collaboration with strong UA programs in anthropology, chemistry, fine arts, materials science, and other areas. Another example of Thompson’s impactful and forward-thinking decisions would be his early adoption of computers for use in collections management.

Thompson was mindful, also, to build upon the legacies he inherited from his predecessors, directors Byron Cummings (1915-37) and Emil Haury (1937-64), who established and solidified ASM’s role as guardian of the state’s archaeological resources. Recognizing post-World-War-II development on a national scale brought a great deal of threat to the nation’s archaeological record, it became clear to Thompson that the relevant laws, going back to 1906, were antiquated and in need of reinterpretation. As president of the Society of American Archaeology, he played a major role in the movement to modernize federal laws. This ultimately led to ARPA, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

Thompson in his office at ASM, 1982. ASM photo collections.

One issue Thompson championed in particular was the need to expand the permitting of archaeological research on federal land, beyond just universities and museums, to include qualified private contractors. In Arizona, he also led the way in updating the state’s historic preservation legislation and the creation of new statutes. In the 1970s, he urged the Arizona legislature to follow the lead of the federal government and allow qualified private contractors to provide archaeological services. Updating Arizona’s laws opened the door for, and led to the birth of, the cultural resource management profession, creating a multi-million-dollar industry, more and better protection of archaeological resources, and more and better research. It also led to more and better employment opportunities for the students that the Department of Anthropology was sending out into the job market.

At the same time, Thompson built on ASM’s long-standing relationships with tribal colleagues, a practice that went back to the days of Byron Cummings. Thompson had the vision to recognize that the future of American anthropology museums would be forged only through cooperation, trust, and partnership with Native Nations. He recommended offices be created within tribal administrations which could handle development and archaeology on their own. He assisted in the establishment of the first tribal museums in Arizona, with ASM serving as the training ground for many among the first generation of tribal museum professionals. Such solid groundwork had been laid that, when activists throughout the country began demanding the return of human remains and sacred objects, ASM was already ahead of the curve, having conducted its first repatriations in the 1930s. For Thompson’s part, he was just one of only a handful of the nation’s museum directors vocally supportive of the proposed Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Thompson again proved prophetic on this issue because NAGPRA was enacted in November 1990, several months after Arizona had already passed similar legislation, at his urging.

Erudite and engaging to the end, Thompson continued to dedicate himself to ASM and the School of Anthropology, lending his name, institutional memory, wit, and wisdom to a variety of oral history, research, marketing, and development initiatives. He remained active as a popular and frequent speaker at events and gatherings. His most recent co-authored book was published in 2014, A Jesuit Missionary in Eighteenth Century Sonora: The Family Correspondence of Philipp Segesser. A co-authored paper on the first European account of encounters with the Tarahumara is even now awaiting publication.

In the fall of 2019, the Arizona State Museum’s north building was named the Raymond H. Thompson Building, in honor of his service and legacy.

Peppering his remarks with equal parts wit and wisdom, Thompson always brought the house down. Thompson here in 2018 at the Arizona Inn, at a School of Anthropology event honoring the post-retirement scholarly contributions of himself, Vance Haynes, and Arthur Jelinek. Photo by Rayshma Pereira.

The Doggerel

One of the more engaging aspects of Thompson’s personality was his ability to create apt and amusing doggerels for any occasion, celebrating the lives and times of his colleagues, friends, and family. His recitations were popular and highly anticipated for most every occasion that warranted special note, such as retirements, weddings, birthdays, and personal and professional milestones. There are volumes of Thompson’s doggerels in the ASM archives dating from 1947 to 2016. His most recent and last doggerel, written in German and recited from memory, was delivered on January 19, 2020, to a rapt group of friends and colleagues gathered to celebrate the 90th birthday of former ASM photographer, Helga Teiwes.

Why Ray Became Department Head
Composed by Raymond H. Thompson for the School of Anthropology’s centennial celebrations, 26 Oct 2015


Now hear the sad story of RHT
Who left Kentucky’s blue grass land,
Swapping Midwestern humidity
For Arizona’s desert sand.



By this time Ray was quite fed up
With that petty naysayer gang.
He was prepared to just give up
And forget the whole shebang.


In nineteen hundred fifty-six
He travelled west with his wife,
Happily to Tucson, not Phoenix,
Ready to begin a brand new life.



But Emil Haury saved the day,
Stepped down from his head
And director jobs, and asked Ray
To take over in his stead.


Armed with his subjective element
And ethnoarchaeology,
He had every good intent
To interpret by analogy,



Ray was honored but flabbergasted
To hear something in positive tones,
Instead of being always blasted
By those negative chaperones.


Backed by the logic of old
And inference by induction,
Only to be rudely told,
Truth comes only from deduction.



Ray took on the new assignments
And gave up his research plans,
Which some canny students
Rescued from the trash cans.


Ray, they said, how can you expect
To work productively,
If you continue to reject
Doing it deductively.



Many folks were phasing out
Most of the hypothetico.
Theory cops soon lost their clout
And life got less deductivo.


Critics thought that he
Was Harvard’s worst mistake
And a heretic of the variety
That should be burned upon a stake.



Population movement soon became
A safe migration substitute.
Diaspora was another name
Used by the more astute.


Then Ray, impressed by site ten fifity,
With its Kayenta occupation,
Thought that it would be quite nifty
To shift attention to migration.



Soon those who honor evidence
Of which there never is enough
Began to give more credence
To that culture history stuff.


No, Ray, those Ancestral Pueblo folk
Were sedentary and never strayed afar.
The concept of migration is a joke
And to use it is a real faux pas.



Ancestral Pueblo folk are now seen
To have intermingled, even moved around,
Enjoying cults and feasts with real caffeine
In a healthy research turn around.


But those late sites that are so populous
Represent some kind of aggregation.
No, they’re just part of that ridiculous
Discredited culture history interpretation.



To conclude with a bit of impudence,
Respect and listen to the theory cops,
But sit up straight and open all the stops
When you control some solid evidence.


Perhaps, said Ray, we could employ
Multiple cross dating to some avail.
No, Ray, no one could possibly enjoy
Compiling such mind-boggling detail



And finally, a word to those
Tired of fabricated mayhem.
Stick to the facts and stay composed
But if all that fails – outlive them.


Only to promote more culture history stuff
Of which we have more than enough.
Besides, we have a radiocarbon guy
Who takes care of such minutiae.




Thompson at Point of Pines Field School in 1947. ASM photo collections.

Education Overview
B.S., summa cum laude, Geology, Tufts University 1947

A.M., Anthropology,  Harvard University 1950

Ph.D., Anthropology, Harvard University 1955

Early Professional Training
Thompson himself, in his Chronology, documents his first professional contact with the University of Arizona, his mentor, Emil W. Haury, and important lifelong professional and personal associations:

The Tufts Geology Department required that its students have a summer field school experience. The faculty, knowing of my archaeological career goals, encouraged me to find an archaeological rather than geological field school to meet that requirement. I sent inquiries to Arizona and New Mexico. Paul Reiter at the University of New Mexico reported that he would have a field school for about 100 people and that he would send me more information later. I never heard from him again. Emil Haury of the University of Arizona (UA) sent me an application and urged prompt action if I wished to be considered for one of the twenty openings for the Arizona field school. I responded immediately and was accepted for the summer of 1947. A letter of support from Wulsin, whom Haury had known in graduate school was critical.

Attended the University of Arizona Archaeological Field School at Point of Pines as an undergraduate student. The camp was still under construction so I pitched in with my carnival and Seabee skills. At Point of Pines I met and became engaged to Molly Kendall, an Arizona State Museum (ASM) member helping in the kitchen. I began friendships with Ned Danson, Ted Sayles, Nathalie Sampson, Dick Woodbury, the Haurys, and the Kidders.

Personal Life
Born in Portland, Maine on May 10, 1924, Thompson was the only son of Raymond Harris Thompson, Sr., a musician born in Portland, Maine, and Eloise MacIntyre, a school teacher, born in Houlton, Maine. By his own account, Thompson and his only sibling, sister Barbara, “had a happy early childhood, but I have almost no direct recollection of it except for a long period of absence from kindergarten when I had a severe case of what was then called scarlet fever and was kept at home under quarantine.”

Thompson served in World War II, in the Pacific theatre as a member of the United States Naval Construction Battalions, better known as the Navy Seabees, from 1944-46.

Of his wedding day, Thompson wrote:

Molly and I were married 9 September 1948 in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tombstone, Arizona with Ned Danson as best man. The Haurys provided both moral and financial support to me and Emil put us on the train in Tucson that evening to return to graduate work at Harvard. 

Thompson lost his beloved wife, Molly Coit Kendall Thompson, on February 10, 2014. He is survived by two daughters, Margaret Luchetta of Danjoutin, France and Mary Thompson of Tigard, Oregon; Margaret’s husband, Georges Luchetta; two granddaughters, Sarah and Julie Luchetta; Sarah’s husband, Jim Moses; and two great grandchildren, Silvio Luchetta Moses and Jayma Luchetta Moses.

Memorial Services
No services have been announced by the family at this time.

Thompson in 2018, at Arizona State Museum's 125th anniversary celebration. ASM photo collections.

More on Thompson


Obituary written by former ASM Director Beth Grindell, published in the SAA Archaeological Record (May 2020, Vol 20, No.3, pp 58-60): 

Decades Past Retirement, UA Anthropology 'Giants' Still at Work

Arch & Hist Ancestors 

Roots of Southwestern Archaeology

Guest Column: The Triumvirate That Launched the Arizona State Museum



Gifts in Memory
Gifts in Dr. Thompson's memory can be made to the Arizona State Museum in support of the Raymond H. and Molly K Thompson Endowment Fund for Research (which supports the work of graduate students) or to the School of Anthropology in support of the Raymond H. Thompson Award, given annually for significant contributions to the field of anthropology. 

Checks payable to University of Arizona/ASM or University of Arizona/SOA, depending on your choice.

ASM Development Office
PO Box 210026
Tucson, AZ  85721-0026