The Spy Who Taught Me
April 05, 2016

Today I received the news that one of the most revered faculty members during my four years at Northwestern is retiring.

On March 14, 2016, the McCormick School of Engineering announced the retirement of Professor Charles W. N. Thompson. The first line of the notice read, “World War II veteran. International spy. Criminal attorney.”

I had the pleasure of being in Professor Thompson’s class in Spring Quarter 2005. The course was ‘IEMS 340 – Field Project Methods’, and I’d be lying to say that I remember what the class was about.

What I do remember, though, is Professor Thompson’s passion in teaching the course. He was always deeply immersed in the subject, and even at times emotional in stressing the importance of the topic at hand.

I later learned that his passion stemmed from his pioneering works in the field. His research aimed at “improving organizations through observations and surveys in place of experiments.” An area that would definitely come in handy for me today, as opposed to 10 years ago when I was a bumbling 20-year-old undergraduate in his class. 

Those who went to college with me would know that I was never the sharpest tool in the shed. But I was not alone this time around. The bright pre-meds aside, there were several of us who had trouble fully understanding the more complex materials of the course.

Despite our visible lack of comprehension, there was never a moment that Professor Thompson appeared to have given up on us. He was always genial in addressing our concerns, and no question went unanswered. Whether we fully understood his explanation or otherwise, was another question. 

While he was reasonably approachable, Professor Thompson was never one to mince his words. I wrote a joint paper once with a few classmates who were unfortunately as clueless as I was. When we got the paper returned, adorned on top of the front page in 2B graphite were the following words, “This paper is cancerous.”

It was disheartening, but we knew he (possibly) meant it in the nicest way. This presumption was affirmed throughout the one hour we had spent at his office to listen to why he thought our paper could be better. We still don’t know why to this very day.

“I’m a storyteller,” he once said in an interview. And any of his students would concur. 

It’s hard to not be one when your CV is 28 pages long with credentials ranging from the Air Force to Harvard Law School. Professor Thompson is probably one of the most decorated and fascinating men I have ever had personally encountered with. And I’m sure this feeling is not mutual.

After 50 years of professorship in the engineering school, I’m sure he will be greatly missed by the university. I think he will be remembered around campus for his wisdom, candor, and sense of humor. 

He does have a one-page summary that accompanies his illustrious CV that lists his less commendable achievements. 

The list reads, “1. Got kicked out of kindergarten.”

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Photography by Azalia Suhaimi

  • Asrif, b. 1983
  • Subang Jaya, Malaysia
  • asrifomar[@]gmail[.]com
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