Phil Thompson dropped off two checks last Thursday.
The Conway lawyer gave one to Horry County Memorial Library and he handed the other to Coastal Carolina University.
It was a nearly $9 million delivery.
The gifts came courtesy of the estate of his uncle and aunt, John and Barbara Thompson of Conway. They died five days apart in 2016 and left identical gifts of $4.4 million to two local libraries: the county’s Conway branch and the university’s library.
“They just believed in education,” Phil Thompson said. “And reading was a way to get that.”
The donation is the largest the county library system has ever received and Coastal officials said it is among the highest single contributions from an individual to the university.
The gifts also came as a surprise. Not even the Thompsons’ friends and family knew about their intentions until after their deaths.
“They were very private people,” Phil Thompson said.
The Thompsons had no children. They didn’t travel much, outside of John Thompson’s occasional trips to Gamecock football games or to fish near Gunter’s Island. They lived in a modest brick house on Lakeland Drive about a block from Trinity United Methodist Church.
Despite their reserved family life, the couple was well known throughout the city. John Thompson’s legal advice was requested by some of Conway’s prominent leaders, including the Burroughs and the Holliday families.
“They sought his opinion on just about anything,” said Pat Henry, who was John Thompson’s law partner at Thompson & Henry. “And his opinion was always right on target it seemed.”
John Thompson served in the S.C. House of Representatives in the early 1960s, and his father, Frank, had been a state senator in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
It was Frank Thompson who provided his son with the connection to the county library.
In 1946, the Horry County delegation sponsored the legislation that established the county’s public library service. Lawmakers appropriated $50,000 for a building and created a tax to support the library.
The Horry County Memorial Library was the first public library built in South Carolina after World War II. It was dedicated on July 1, 1949.
John and Frank Thompson attended the dedication together.
In his will, John Thompson was careful to note that his money must supplement library funding, and Horry County Council could not use it to shore up a red budget.
“He knew government,” Phil Thompson said. “He knew politicians.”
Although giving millions to the libraries surprised both family and friends, there was no doubt about the Thompsons’ support for education.
Barbara Thompson taught high school students business and English, and John Thompson was a voracious reader, flying through everything from novels to newspapers.
“He could read a novel in a day,” Phil Thompson said. “They were both smart people and I think reading was part of what did that.”
Henry, who practiced law with John Thompson for 25 years, remembers his partner often bringing him books that he’d read, insisting that Henry should peruse them, too. But after poring over court documents all day, Henry said he just couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm for the written word as his friend.
“I had my nose in the books 12 hours a day,” he said. “And when I got home, I didn’t feel like reading a book.”
But both men shared a love of the law.
When Henry was preparing to graduate from law school, the Myrtle Beach firm where he had clerked told him they didn’t have a position for him, but there was a lawyer in Conway who would be a good fit.
In 1973, Henry graduated from law school and began working with John Thompson.
John Thompson was highly regarded as a business lawyer, but he was comfortable in multiple legal arenas.
“John’s life was the law and his law practice,” Henry said.
The two attorneys often spent six to seven days a week in the office together. Sometimes, Henry said, the two men would debate the law, but he could never recall winning a legal argument with his partner. John Thompson was older than Henry (He is 74. Thompson was 86 when he died), and the younger attorney learned from his more experienced mentor.
Early in their practice, a client paid a bill with a large wad of cash. John Thompson told Henry that he could easily pocket the money and not pay taxes on it, but that would be wrong.
“Peace of mind is worth a lot more than this cash,” he told him.
“That’s the way John was,” Henry said. “Everything was on the up and up.”
As Coastal Carolina’s campus grew, John Thompson developed a fondness for the university. He served on the Coastal Educational Foundation board and represented the foundation for 20 years.
A longtime baseball fan, he became a staple at Coastal games.
One of his few close friends was Dick Singleton, Coastal’s former chancellor.
Henry remembers driving Singleton and John Thompson to South Carolina football games and listening to them swap stories. John Thompson had the same seats in Columbia for decades.
“That was a hoot,” he said. “They knew something funny about everybody. And I used to often wonder what they knew about me that was so funny. … My stomach would be hurting when we got to Carolina because they’d just keep me cracked up the whole time.”
Cynthia Thornley didn’t know about the Thompson bequest when she accepted the job as director of Horry County Libraries in late 2017.
“It is such an unusual thing for a public library,” she said. “We don’t get these chances. We read about them in Library Journal, but we don’t get them.”
Although the gift is specifically for the Conway library, Thornley said the family’s generosity has the potential to reinvigorate the entire system.
For example, say a coding program or culinary lab funded by the Thompson gift works well in Conway. The county would then seek grant funding to find a way to launch the same initiative in Carolina Forest or Socastee with different resources.
“I see it as being a stimulus that really helps us to learn about what things really take off,” she said, adding that library officials are considering a variety of potential programs ranging from a digital media lab to a small library focused on local and state history. “These things have been done and they are proven.”
Library officials plan to seek public input about what they should do with the money, although Thornley said they likely will place much of it in an endowment to make it last as long as possible.
“We want to know what the community wants,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we can do it all. But we definitely want that included. We want to know what staff thinks. They work around this every day. And we need to know what observations they have. … It’s a matter of putting all of those things together.”
Coastal Carolina officials are also hoping to make the gift sustainable. They said the money will support Kimbel Library and the Bryan Information Commons as well as the university’s endowment campaign.
“The Thompsons’ generosity will play a powerful role in providing critical resources for the everchanging learning needs of our students,” said Bryan Steros, CCU’s interim vice president for philanthropy, in prepared remarks. “Our gratitude for this gift is beyond measure.”
Henry admits he was shocked when he learned that most of his law partner’s $12 million estate had gone to public libraries.
He assumed John Thompson would have spread the money around to more organizations, maybe given extra to his church.
But in all those years practicing together, one quality about his friend stood out — John Thompson’s ability to see what others did not.
“Not only was he extremely smart, an extremely bright lawyer and well respected, but he had probably the best judgment of anybody,” he said. “You know, most people that are extremely intelligent don’t have that much judgment and common sense, but John did.”
And so with nearly $9 million at stake, he’ll again trust John Thompson’s decision.