Confessions of a ‘Murphy’s Law Child’ turned Omaha city councilman
OMAHA — After two decades of navigating the ups and downs of public office, Franklin Thompson said it would have been easy to “quietly ride off into the sunset and celebrate my retirement years.”
But the former four-term city councilman harkens to the lyrics of an old gospel tune in explaining why he didn’t take that route: Something’s got a hold of me, and it won’t let me be.
“That something is about protecting vulnerable kids,” Thompson writes in his newly published autobiography, “Confessions of a Murphy’s Law Child.”
Raw, urban street talk
So instead of a cruise or European vacation filling the weeks following his August departure from city government, Thompson is promoting what he describes as an anthem for the abused and misunderstood.
Each of the book’s 13 chapters ends with a survival strategy, directed at young people, that Thompson said helped him overcome his own setbacks with child abuse, racism, poverty and “stinking thinking.”
He also offers mentoring tips, relevant to what transpired in that chapter of his life, for parents, community leaders and older readers.
Thompson packed the pages with a kind of raw, urban street language certainly not heard on the Republican’s west central Omaha campaign trail or at City Hall cabinet meetings — but valuable in establishing credibility that he’s been there.
Indeed, he issues an unapologetic caution of sorts in the book: “Ministers, religious friends and English teachers please forgive my linguistic fall from grace.”
Thompson and his wife, the Rev. Beverly Thompson, have four children. Now 68, he spent a couple of decades writing the pieces of his early life that are chronicled in the 254-page book.
During the process, he said, he endured emotional breakdowns and probably alienated some family and friends wary about “airing dirty laundry.”
But he said he had healing yet to do. He’s an educator, wired to pass on lessons learned. He taught high school and college before his election as a councilman and continued to teach at the University of Nebraska at Omaha while on the council. He went to part time hours at UNO in 2017 after taking the full-time helm of the city human rights and relations department.
He believes his journey, part of which was growing up in South Carolina and Colorado as well as Nebraska, can help show “there are alternatives to going dark or negative.”
The autobiography, which is his first book, doesn’t fully explore Thompson’s later career years, and he expects to write a few sequels. (He wraps up the 13th chapter with: To Be Continued.)
Botched suicide attempt
The Nebraska Examiner talked to Thompson about his latest professional move and a rise from low points that included separation from his biological mother, a day in juvenile jail and a “botched” suicide attempt as a teen.
Here are some highlights:
Q: In taking on the book project, you said you wanted other at-risk kids to understand they can “beat the odds.” What was pivotal in helping you to beat the odds?
Thompson: If I go back to the early years, there were mentors at Tech High (Technical High School at 32nd and Cuming Streets was closed in 1984. The building now houses the Omaha Public Schools’ headquarters.). It was viewed as the alternative school that ‘throwaway’ kids went to. There were four particular educators — they didn’t treat school like a business, they treated it like a family. It wasn’t unusual for them to take money out of their pockets and buy someone a winter coat.
There’s a lot of pressure on educators to be more than just teachers. It’s not fair, but it does work. You can save kids when everybody else fails a child — I’m talking about government, law enforcement, even religious institutions — a caring adult at a school can make a difference. If educators turn their back on that, I think problems with young people are going to escalate even further.
Q: Educators had a big impact on your life. Is that what shaped your early career decision?
Thompson: Yes. I had early plans of either going straight into the music business, or I thought I might be a United States senator. That was my trajectory in high school. But because of what the educators did for me, I wanted to pay forward what was done for me.
Q: How did you take the leap from associate university professor to city councilman?
Thompson: It was a dare, a challenge from UNO students. They liked what I had to say about human relations, standing up in the gap for children. I said I can’t afford it. A couple of students said they’d run my campaign, and they did it for free.
Q: Describe that campaign period leading to your 2001 election.
Thompson: No one thought I could win. The district at that time was about 96% white voters. I did run into a lot of racism, but for every negative I saw or heard, there would be whites saying it was time for change. My secret weapon: A lot of parents knew me from teaching (social studies and race relations with a political science and social justice flair). Also, going door to door. More than that, the time was ready. Six years earlier, I think I would have fallen flat.
Q: Any regrets?
Thompson: No. Being in the political world helped me to grow as an individual. In order to help children, you have to create a better structure. If the structure is not in place for children, it’s an uphill battle. So it was a natural extension.
Q: What action as a councilman might you point to that helped create a better structure for youth?
Thompson: The city had to do a 20% match with EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to get rid of lead in east Omaha. And me being a Republican, I was expected to vote no. I didn’t, and I took a hit on that one from my party, which was saying that government was trying to be too big. I didn’t buy that. I knew that lead causes developmental stunting of growth, intellectual and physical. So I had to ditch the party and go with what was best for children.
Q: What prompted the leave from City Hall?
Thompson: I wanted to devote more time to spreading the word about the power of resiliency for young people. I was in politics for 21 years. I was in education for 46 years. My education side started pulling at me.
Q: Proudest achievement in the city’s human rights and relations department?
Thompson: A tie between establishing the annual (four years so far) Living The Dream (performing arts) competition for junior and senior high school students and co-founding the Omaha Community Council on Racial Justice and Reconciliation. (The council recently organized the historic marker dedications to lynching victims George Smith and Will Brown.) Both efforts added outreach, healing and education to the department services — a new perspective I brought to the job beyond investigations and paperwork.
Q: How do you rate Omaha’s human rights and relations conditions?
Thompson: In the middle of the pack of urban cities.
Q: After many years in community and civic affairs, what do you think is most right about Omaha? And, conversely, what is most wrong (that could use attention)?
Thompson: We’re ahead of the curve in things like the job market, housing and education system. But we have a serious minority youth brain drain. We are losing too many talented minority young people. They leave the city and come back to visit. That’s not good. We have to allow our minorities to have a vision that they can get a bigger share of the economic pie.
Q: Beyond a mentor figure, is there a tool or advice that your experience tells you can change the course of a struggling young person?
Thompson: Separate the person who is abusing from their behavior. That allows you to — using an unconventional phrase here — rubberize your rump. When you hit the ground, you bounce back up, rather than shatter like glass. Learn to see them as a person separate from their behavior, and that’s not easy to do. Also, the ability to see a future win. You can be in the middle of a storm — envision a way out. Some people may use the phrase, “Believe that you can change your stars.”
Music was the other anchor that kept me afloat. I can tell you the song that started it all, a song by the name of “Stand” by Sly and the Family Stone. The lyrics gave me the courage to fight against social and political dysfunctionalism.
Q: What’s your wish, hope, for this book?
Thompson: Three wishes: 1) That it helps bolster at-risk kids with enough resiliency to where they make choices other than drugs, gangs, dropout, suicide and shooting up a school; 2) That it provides a wakeup call for adults — that we’ve got to do a whole lot more mentoring than what we’re doing; 3) We need to bring back schools like Tech High and have that model there for kids that don’t walk the typical, normal path. Every district needs at least one school that will handle the kids that don’t “fit.” (He says existing local “alternative” schools are more behavioral-focused and don’t have the same comprehensive offering of college and vocational tracks as did Tech High when he attended.)
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