Jennifer Thompson introduced herself to Northwest Public Radio with a note about how the station’s classical music threads through the day she shares with her grandson Wesley. Wesley was just a toddler when his mom—Jennifer’s youngest daughter—was deployed with the Navy. I saw Jennifer through this lens: a nurturing grandmother sharing classical music along with story time, nap time and dance time at home.
I should have known there was more to her story.
Jennifer can climb a radio tower in the snow, drive a snowcat, play flamenco guitar, belt out a chorus, fly a plane, be happily married, run a company, raise kids, repair a heavy cargo plane, knit a sweater … and probably many more things we didn’t get a chance to talk about. Through it all, “public radio and classical music have been a constant thread through my life,” she said.
Looking for opportunity and adventure beyond her hometown, Jennifer turned to the military after high school—against her parents’ advice. She maintained aircraft—heavy cargo craft including C-5s, 141s, and A-10s— first as an avionics specialist then as a crew chief working in Alaska. There, her three daughters joined her life.
But college had always been part of her goal and, not having followed her parents’ advice years before, tackled college the hard way: night classes over 10 years, sometimes taking her kids to class with her. “I don’t recommend that route to a college education,” Jennifer laughed. This was the advice she shared with her daughters, too. Like she did, they ignored their parent’s advice and each joined the military, two in the Navy and one in the Air Force.
Degree in hand, Jennifer moved from the Air Force and to the Federal Aviation Administration. Working as an electronic technician, she repaired and maintained communication gear and navigation equipment. This was when her connection to public radio took hold.
“You’re taking your gear, going out by yourself,” Jennifer sounds peaceful as she recalls the silent white landscapes around Fairbanks. “It can be lonely. You’re a one-man crew. Public radio was my companion.”
While on work excursions in Alaska, she met her husband Brain. Brian was a charter pilot up in Alaska piloting many of Jennifer’s work trips. “You have to maintain remote equipment in Alaska by air,” Jennifer explains. “I had a blank charter ticket, so I could go anywhere, whenever I needed to. One of my charter pilots was Brian.”
Brian Thompson’s family was rooted in the Yakima Valley, and eventually he returned from his adventures in Alaska to continue the family orchard operations. By this time, he and Jennifer were moving toward marriage, and both made the move from Alaska. Jennifer transferred within the FAA to the Washington region where she branched out into new adventures in her work trips. Recalling a specific trip to Stampede Pass, she remembers having to maneuver to the site where she then had to work on treacherous, icy towers to complete the assignment. “In Alaska you transport by air, but here I had to learn to drive a snowcat!” she said. “Oh my God! I had to plow my own road, haul gear using sleds and snowshoes, then climbing towers and knocking ice off the big microwave links between the big air traffic control centers. It was so fun—and scary, too.”
“We covered such a large area. You get a lot of windshield time. Northwest Public Radio kept me company, kept me awake, kept me engaged.”
Public radio listeners remember the first time they pledged. For Jennifer, it was during one of these long drives for work, during a pledge drive. “I thought: I can make a difference. I pulled over to a rest area and thought about it more. Still thinking about it, I kept driving and listening.” It was a new idea for her—this was the first pledge drive where she didn’t feel financially strapped or busy planning for big expenses for family. “When I got to my remote station, I made my first pledge to public radio. It felt good to contribute to what basically had been my companion so others can enjoy it, too.”
While Jennifer has long had passion for public radio, her passion for classical music started even earlier. At seven, she started playing guitar and was drawn to flamenco as she was told it was too difficult for her. She was able to learn. And has kept that same determination into adulthood. Jennifer celebrates her 10th season singing with the Yakima Symphony Chorus this fall.
Jennifer has a special bond with her grandson and she often cares for him while her daughter is deployed. This was our introductory story, and a central one to Jennifer’s current life. “My husband and I have been raising our very active 2-year-old grandson while our daughter is at sea so I am at home more than I ever use to be. NWPR classical music is on in the background as we go about our day...morning classical inspires art projects and accompanies story-time...afternoon classical soothes him to nap time and keeps me company with a cup of tea and a bit of a breather. Jennifer is able to pass on her love for classical music and public radio to her grandchild. As they listen throughout the day she said the.” While he isn’t napping, they dance along to the radio in her living room delighting in the music that “tickles his fancy.”
Another part of Jennifer’s current life is with her husband Brian and their aviation business, Explore Aviation. In her quiet time she enjoys painting in watercolor and knitting along with Northwest Public Radio.
“I’m a lot of different people, but I’m the same person,” says Jennifer. “You play lots of roles in life, and you don’t know what the next one will be. Classical music has been there for me, through all the changes, all the upheavals. Classical music—and public radio—is the thread that runs through my life.”
Story by Jessie Roselyn