From Chem Student to CEO, Ted Thompson's Roots Run Deep

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By: Sandra Mitchell, '91

When Darrell “Ted” Thompson arrived to Aquinas College in the late 1940s, it was at a time when the entire Robinson Road campus consisted only of Holmdene and its Carriage House. It was the Carriage House that held Thompson’s interest while at AQ, because that was the location of the chemistry lab. Thompson was at Aquinas to study the sciences, and that he did. His education, combined with his ingenuity and determination, launched a long and remarkable career for one of AQ’s most distinguished alums.

Though Thompson had explored other colleges in the Grand Rapids area, AQ appealed to him in a way the others did not. “Aquinas is definitely a one-of-kind school,” said Thompson. “When I came to Aquinas, it was an interesting thing. I had never known a Catholic before. I had never seen a Sister in a habit. It was quite a shock to me back then. Everyone I met at Aquinas was wonderful. They were much more generous than the people I had been going around with. I was attracted to the Catholic religion because of it, and was baptized as a Catholic in my senior year.”

Following Thompson’s graduation from Aquinas in 1952, world events and his status as a Navy reservist called him to duty. He was deployed to the Korean War three weeks after completing his degree. Before his deployment, Thompson had a steady girlfriend in fellow alumni Rita Rieder.

Thompson recalls that his relationship with Rieder was quite serious when he left for active duty. But, it wasn’t meant to be. When Thompson returned from service, Rieder had married another. Little did Thompson know that he and Rieder would reconnect much later in life.

Following his return home from the war and receiving the news about Rieder, Thompson went on to date a woman by the name of Duane Agnes Bockheim ‘78. Also an Aquinas alum, Duane Bockheim worked as a registered nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Rapids (now known as Mercy Health Saint Mary’s). Thompson’s partnership with Duane Bockheim transformed him into a husband and father, and also inspired one of his most important inventions.

After his wartime duty, Thompson served as an engineer at Lear Siegler, Inc. (LSI). The company, a well-known aviation technology and aerospace research and development corporation, had a big contract with NASA when Thompson came on board.

While at LSI, Thompson created several inventions, and in his role he contributed heavily to the creation of a new solid state physics department that developed the electro luminescent cockpit displays for NASA’s Apollo spacecraft and lunar lander. After LSI’s contract with NASA expired in the late 1950s, Thompson, along with six other LSI engineers, founded a new company based in West Michigan in which innovation was the name of the game.

The new venture coined its name—X-Rite—after inventing a firstof- its-kind x-ray marking tape. The marking tape was inspired when Thompson’s wife arrived home from working a nursing shift, and said, “It sure would be nice if we could write the patient’s name on their x-ray.” (According to X-Rite lore, x-ray tape you can write on = X-Rite.)

On Christmas Eve 1958, Thompson filed the original articles of incorporation for X-Rite.

A decade later, X-Rite’s business had grown to the point that Thompson agreed to dedicate his full attention to the company. In addition to serving as CEO, Thompson took up the reigns for new product development, a role no one likely would have been able to keep him from.

Throughout his years at the helm of X-Rite, Thompson went on to invent a silver recovery system for x-ray equipment, a shrink-wrapping device and a densitometer—all significant contributions to health care and other industries.

More than 40 years and many inventions later, in 1999, Thompson announced he was stepping down as X-Rite’s CEO. Thompson did, however, remain actively involved with X-Rite as board chairman for another dozen years. At the time of Thompson’s retirement in 2001, the company had 1,200 employees, served 97 countries and earned more than $150 million per year in sales.

In 2006, Duane Bockheim passed away after a long battle with kidney failure. But, as life has a way of marching on and delivering new and unexpected gifts, Thompson reconnected with his former girlfriend, Rita Rieder. After widowed, Rieder rekindled her relationship with Thompson and the two later married. Between them they have four sons, six granddaughters and five grandsons.

Even throughout his years leading a multi-million dollar company, his immersion in his own product research and invention, and being a husband and father, Thompson remained committed to his Aquinas College roots. Thompson has stayed connected with Aquinas classmates and with the College itself, steadily and generously contributing to the College and its students.

In addition to sizeable donations to various Aquinas capital projects and programs, Thompson developed the Darrell T. Thompson Fellowship, a fund for AQ students advancing their knowledge in the sciences during the summer.

“When Aquinas needs something, I help out,” said Thompson. “I’m very supportive of the science department…I’ve done what I can to emphasize more of the sciences. If you don’t have a science background, it can be hard to find a job because technology is taking over.”

Though Thompson is technically retired, he has yet to stop working. He finds time to help others in their dream of starting their own businesses.

And of course, Thompson continues inventing. With a 6,000-square-foot home laboratory, he recently invented a heart and lung machine that infuses organs and keeps them alive, which is a lot like Thompson and his relationship with Aquinas College. Thompson infuses Aquinas with his generosity, and the College and its students keep going strong.