Thompson wants students ready for real world
By Pete Rosenbery
Throughout her career, Jan Thompson has been a “cliff jumper.”
From her work as a sports programming producer-director and studio director for several Chicago professional teams, including Bulls basketball in its heyday; to leaping into documentary filmmaking for PBS and then into a college classroom, Thompson embraces challenges. A professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Digital Media, she strives to impress the same upon students -- in the classroom or as adviser to the nationally recognized and award-winning newsmagazine “alt.news 26:46.”
While they might not wind up to be Steven Spielberg, Thompson, who came to SIU in 2000, said she provides students with valuable preparation for what lies ahead.
“Whether they are my student or not, I feel we have to be preparing them for the real world; that they are here to get the survival skills for the next stage of their lives,” she said. “What I try to do is take that interest; I might be considered tough but it’s a tough love because I know that if they … can survive my classes and they can survive putting a show together like ‘alt.news’ I’ve then equipped them for their next stage.
“Our field is demanding and it’s extremely difficult to survive in,” she said. “When I think back of the people who I’ve worked with over the years, they have all moved into different areas, different careers, I feel fortunate that I’m able to survive but it’s been a tough survival.”
Thompson has produced more than 300 television programs and multi-award winning prime time specials for PBS called Hidden Journeys. Her recent work involves a special subject that has taken 22 years -- the survival stories of World War II veterans, including her late father, Robert -- who were Japanese POWs and transported aboard “hellships” from the Philippines. The documentary on those men, whom Thompson lovingly refers to as “my guys,” “Never The Same: The Prisoner of War Experience,” features Emmy Award-winning actress Loretta Swit. Thompson also produced the 2011 film, “Tragedy of Bataan,” a half-hour television documentary and five-part radio companion, narrated by actor Alec Baldwin.
She heads the nonprofit veterans’ group, American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor Memorial Society, and she accompanied former POWs to Japan in October. The Associated Press featured Thompson’s work in an October story. The film will focus on how people in both nations, including former POWs, are coming to terms with what happened 70 to 75 years after the war.
“It will be a feel good piece, which I’m ready for,” she said. Thompson believes that to be a good documentary filmmaker, one has to “be a good storyteller.” She has won national and international awards, including three Emmys for music composition, editing and writing, and has 14 Emmy nominations across several production areas.
“The whole reason people do films is they want to tell that story and educate people,” she said. “It’s a story that needs to be told, but people need to be educated about it as well.”
The career change from sports programming and directing to documentary film work meant an inconsistent income but “really opened up a passion,” Thompson said. With a documentary, there is a different topic, different subject and “more to keep you interested and engaged,” she said.
“I would like to think that some of my work is making a difference,” she said. “I don’t think anything I did with the Chicago Bulls made a difference. A lot of people come to a time when they will ask, ‘why am I here?’ I have asked myself that a lot. And I’m convinced I’m here to tell the guys’ story.”
Thompson’s work with “alt.news 26:46” is another chapter in her story. The news magazine program has earned 31 regional professional Emmys and seven first place College Television Awards for the nation’s top student-produced program over more than a decade. The program also has several second- and third-place finishes in competition that regularly includes the University of Southern California and University of California-Berkeley. Thompson recalls when she took over as faculty adviser after her first year on campus she saw a group of students with “raw talent.”
“They were highly talented kids. That’s what you want,” she said. “You have gifted students who are excited and who want to produce. Look at what we have been able to achieve almost year after year after year. And the kids graduate so it is different kids; not the kid who hasn’t graduated for 15 years.”
Thompson said it is gratifying that the program’s legacy is one that students want to build upon each year.
“We have a legacy. I’m proud that we’ve been able to continue this legacy and that the students want to continue it,” she said. “We have a high bar and they come in knowing it’s a high bar. They meet it almost every year. That’s pressure, that’s stress on the students. But they all know that they are getting real-world experience.”
Then there are the program alumni who are also ready to offer advice and support.
“That is what you want. The whole idea for coming to college and the university is to prepare students for the world,” Thompson said. “You are going to have friendships that will most likely last a lifetime. When you look at a college, and I know that at least with ‘alt.news 26:46’, that those kids each season will be in touch with each other and will be a support group. That is what you need.”