Russell Thompson, ARCH 1933
The following is an Oral History interview with Mr. Russell A. Thompson, Architecture class of 1933, conducted by Marilyn J. Somers in his Atlanta home on April 15, 1996. The subject of the interview is student life at Georgia Tech. Mr. Russell begins the interview by discussing his early life. He was born in 1912 on Plum Street, which is now a part of Tech campus. His family then moved to Clifton Road in Atlanta in 1918, and he has lived in this home ever since. He attended Boy's High School and graduated in 1929. He then came to Tech as an architecture student. Mr. Thompson explains that he hitchhiked or roller-skated from his home to school, every day. His classes were held in the Physics building and he was taught drawing of plans, watercolors, etc. Some of the professors Mr. Thompson remembers were Maurice Siegler - who taught charcoal drawing, Matt Jorgenson, Professor Gailey and Professor Bush-Brown. Mr. Thompson remembers that the Fox Theater opened in 1929 and he attended almost every week. At this time, the Depression hit Atlanta, and his father died in 1930. To keep him in school, Mr. Thompson's mother started her own employment agency. During the summers and after school, Mr. Thompson worked for the architectural firm of Birge & Stevens to gain experience. The classmate he remembers the most is Hugh Stubbins. Hugh and Russell won the architectural awards at graduation. Hugh won the scholarship for a masters degree at Harvard. During one of the summers, Mr. Thompson hitchhiked to California to see Los Angeles and Hollywood. After graduation, he went to California again to see if he could find a job, because there was nothing in Atlanta. He stayed for the summer with a friend of his mother's, but returned to Georgia to find a job in the Fall. Mr. Thompson took a job as a stock room worker in Columbus, GA until he could earn enough money to hitchhike to New York. He arrived in New York in 1934 or 1935 and began interviewing with illustrators to find work as a magazine illustrator. It was suggested to him that he should model for the illustrators instead, because of his good looks, and he proceeded to model for a few years. After a while, Mr. Thompson became a model for photographers, instead of illustrators. He was on billboards and magazines everywhere, and was used exclusively for Chesterfield cigarettes, Camel cigarettes, and Texaco. In 1940, he had to return home to help his mother, because his sister had a nervous breakdown. He got a job for a short time with an architectural firm in Atlanta, but World War II began and he enlisted as a Marine. He served as a drill instructor at both Paris Island and Quantico for a time and was then sent over seas. He participated in the invasion of Okinawa and did sketches of the island while he was waiting to be sent home. In Hawaii, Mr. Thompson drew a portrait of one of his fellow officers, and after rave reviews, he decided to make that his new career. His first portrait was done in Atlanta for $500. He then went to New York and painted portraits for numerous socialites for $2000. He painted portraits for about five years, and some of his most famous portraits were of Wendell Wilke and Martha Berry. After this time, Mr. Thompson found a job as an architectural draftsman for York and Sawyer in New York. He stayed with the firm for 23 years, and they primarily concentrated on medical facilities. However, Thompson also designed most of the salons for Elizabeth Arden, across the country. He had started designing the salons while still a portrait artist and Elizabeth Arden asked for Mr. Thompson to continue working on her salons when he joined the firm. Mr. Thompson began to take photos during his travels across the country for York and Sawyer, and he exhibited his photos in the library of the office. After the firm was closed, Mr. Thompson decided to travel the globe and continue to take photographs. He became connected with an advertising firm and now has three agents for his photos. His pictures are used in billboards, magazines, textbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias. He has now traveled around the world three times and has taken pictures in every country in the world. Mr. Thompson has enjoyed every job that he has held. He feels that his education at Tech helped him as a learning experience. An autobiography is in the works but he does not know if he will be able to have it published in his lifetime. The interview concludes with Mr. Thompson showing us the portraits that are displayed throughout his home.
1996 April 15