Alvin H. Thompson ‘49 first walked onto Occidental’s quad in the fall of 1945, after surviving bomb raids and artillery fire during two years of fighting in World War II. By his side were 800 veterans fresh from battle, a group that doubled the size of the college.
This, however, is only the beginning of Thompson’s story, as told in his new book, “Oxy’s Impact on at Least One World War II Vet,” self-published in January.
The inspiration for Thompson’s book comes from a larger project he is working on, a seven-volume autobiography spanning his entire life. According to his daughter Tina Virshup, Thompson decided to publish this individual volume to show what an impact Occidental had on his life. From there, with the help of his assistant Chris Evann Jalandon, he set down to write about his experiences and that of other G.I.s at Occidental.
Attending college was not Thompson’s initial plan when he returned home from the war. He briefly worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, but decided to move home to Highland Park when a drop in the draft age made another military tour seem likely. His father, though, encouraged Thompson to dream bigger. He made his way to Occidental on the G.I. Bill, and eventually majored in economics.
According to Thompson, many of his best memories at Occidental can be attributed to his professors. There was Raymond McKelvy, who made his political science classes “more than pompous statements.” Frank Smiley, the geology instructor, was “known for his massive verbal hyphenations.” And Cecil Dunn, who taught economics, was a “flamboyant genius.”
“These guys were just fabulous,” Thompson said.
Thompson’s most vivid memories paint a picture of Occidental at a pivotal point in history, from driving his father’s ‘38 Ford sedan on geology trips to advocating for the creation of a Los Angeles transit system. Still, the book also features plenty of modern parallels. Thompson played both football and track, becoming a shot putter under acclaimed coach Payton Jordan. Later, Thompson became a member of the Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) fraternity, though not without reservations.
As much as the school shaped the former soldier, he and his fellow veterans also changed the dynamic at Occidental. They were less inclined to heed authority, having endured years of commands in the military. Teachers and coaches had a harder time ordering them around, and ATO’s initiation “Hell Week” did not go over well.
“We were guys who didn’t want to fiddle around,” Thompson said. “We wanted to get our degrees and get out, so all these big adjustments had to be made.”
But the veterans also made constructive use of the college experience. They pushed ATO to accept Jewish pledges, as the Holocaust was fresh in their memories. And Thompson recalls that the neighboring sorority, Alpha Lambda Phi Alpha, was where he met his future wife, Jeanette.
Years later, Thompson is pleased to see the school’s “positive spirit” intact, according to his grandson Scott Virshup (senior). Virshup was excited to get a closer look at his grandfather’s legacy through his memoir.
“I think one of the coolest parts is to see the pictures he had from when he was at Oxy,” Virshup said. “And he’s a big storyteller.”
Now, Thompson hopes his book will be sufficient contribution to Occidental in return for helping him mature into adult life.
“I heard Obama say one time, ‘Oxy gave me a chance to turn myself around,’” Thompson said. “And that was the same thing that I experienced.”
“Oxy’s Impact on at Least One World War II Vet” is available for purchase at the Occidental College Bookstore.