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“Good Evening, Everybody”
An Interview With Lowell Thomas
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
Yes, but I have some regrets. Years later when I went off to the First World War and came in contact with young British officers, nearly all of them products of Eton, Rugby Harrow, Oxford, Cambridge, and so on, I was startled to find how well educated these fellows were. Most of them had superb, classical educations. From early childhood, they all had had Latin and many had had Greek. This gave me a shock. Most of them were killed, of course, men who could have played an important role in running the Empire in later years. I’m convinced the loss of so many of their ablest youth in World War I was one of the reasons for what later happened to the British Empire.
What sort of subjects did you study in college?
My father was a rather remarkable scholar, and associating with him was enough to cause any boy to want to study all subjects. My father was a near expert in almost everything, which is unusual. I’ve only encountered a few people in the world who had as broad an education as my father. Not nearly enough of it rubbed off on me. Living in a tough mining camp, the boys you associate with are rugged chaps, not the sort to encourage you to study the classics! But just living in the same house with my father turned out to be an incredible asset. I didn’t realize it at the time.
You’re not close to anyone who pushes you as hard as he pushed me. But looking back on it, I guess he didn’t push me too hard. After all, the contrast between my home and the mining camp with the red-light district and all the saloons and gambling halls was great. In that atmosphere it’s not easy to be close to a father who is a unique scholar. We got along all right, but we were never pals until after we both went off to the First World War, and when I woke up to the fact that he had been right.
You’ve described your father’s belief that personality is revealed by the way a person speaks. He was the one who first got you interested in public speaking?
He didn’t get me interested so much as he put me through it. That’s a good deal like a coach on a team putting you through training that may be a bore. My father thought ability to speak in public could be a major asset to any human being. I resisted I guess, and even more so when it came to training in elocution, because as a speaker you are on exhibition. And if you are a youngster, you may not want to be on exhibition. So he experimented with me; although apparently he had never bothered too much about it himself.
When did you discover he was right?
Before I finished high school. In my third year the gold mines began to show signs of playing out. Also there had been a major strike with much violence. My father was fed up and decided to go farther west to see if he could find some other area where he might start again. So he sent mother, my sister Pherbia, and me back to Ohio. There I had a rather odd experience. I think we are controlled in life to a great extent by chance. At this high school in Darke County, Ohio, I happened to be in a class in English presided over by Ada Bowen, a little red-haired, good-looking teacher who ordered the boys in the class to memorize a famous oration or part of one and deliver it before the student body. Who had ever heard of anything like that being done in a high school? I don’t remember why, but I selected the climax to Wendell Phillips’ famous tribute to Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Negro hero of a rebellion in Haiti. It’s a spread-eagle, colorful oration. My classmates all went down in flames. They were doing something they had never done before. As a result of my performance, from that day on practically everybody in the school, and there were nearly a thousand students, spoke to me when we met in the halls or outside. Later, when I went out for the school football team, and not even sure I would make it, they elected me captain. That’s quite a responsibility to take on. “Two-gun Thomas from Cripple Creek” they called me.
Experiences like that build a person's confidence, don’t they?
Yes, but I may have gotten a little too much confidence, because I got into trouble. My father was not there, and I began spending some of my time in a pool hall playing with a pool shark named Jelly Burns, who had been a legendary minor-league baseball star. I lost my money to him regularly. Years later when I was invited to Greenville, Ohio, to make a speech, and they had a parade for me, they asked me if there was anyone from the old days I wanted to meet again. I told them I wanted to take on old Jelly Burns for one more game of pool. It was arranged. I scratched the cue ball on my first shot, whereupon Jelly cleared the table, just like in the old days. Anyhow, I had made the mistake of colliding with the football coach, who had a hot temper. He threw me down a flight of stairs, and I was expelled from school. My father came back before the end of the school year, which was fortunate. He talked things over with the superintendent, who had been his roommate in college, and I was reinstated. That summer we went back to Colorado, and there I finished high school.
When you enrolled at the University of Northern Indiana, did you have any particular goal in mind?