The Definition of Leadership
A Panola County friend recently joked that she had looked up the word leadership in the dictionary, and Jeretta Thompson’s picture appeared beside it. It could also appear beside words like serving, competent, involved, loyal, supportive, busy, and a host of others.
Born in Oklahoma City, she was adopted from the Methodist Children’s Home in Bristow, Oklahoma when she was about three weeks old. “I am living proof that parents love their adopted children just like the ones they give birth to,” she says. “No child was ever more loved, cherished, and cared for by their parents than I was!”
The family soon moved near Erick, Oklahoma, first to a farm a few miles outside the town, with Jeretta going to school through second grade at Delhi, and then into town. She graduated from Erick High School in 1954.
She then began attending Southwestern Teachers College (now Southwestern University) in Weatherford, Oklahoma. Her uncle was State Superintendent of Schools and used his connections in education to help her get a summer job as a college intern with the State Department of Indian Education. Working in the state capital in Oklahoma City, she was responsible for making up packets of information and forms for students who might qualify for educational assistance because of their Indian ancestry.
She says, “In my experience, the old adage ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know’ is true. After the Indian Education job, my uncle also helped me get other part-time jobs at the college, and I worked there all through school.” The first was as secretary for the Horology Department, which is where students studied about making clocks and watches. Then she spent the remainder of her college years working in the Registrar’s office, keeping records and working with student transcripts. Since every student had to go to that office upon college entrance and again before graduation, she says it afforded her the opportunity to meet just about every student at the college.
Graduating with a double major in business and elementary education, Jeretta joined her college roommate from Lamesa, Texas, in securing a teaching job there, teaching typing, business law, and business math. During the summer before school started, she worked as hostess and cashier at the Green Hut Restaurant (“THE” restaurant in Lamesa, she says), and also filled in some during the school year. She lived in an apartment at a lady’s home, and it was during this time that she learned to play bridge, which continues to be her favorite hobby today.
One of the ladies she enjoyed playing bridge with was married to Wesley Roberts, who was elected to the Texas House of Representatives. Because his wife was not too excited about the upcoming loneliness she would probably experience with her husband’s new position, Roberts asked Jeretta to move to Austin to serve as his secretary but also as his wife’s helper, companion, and bridge partner when he was away or occupied with state business. Roberts was a key figure in passage of a House bill which included the most wide-ranging educational reform ever undertaken in Texas and took two special sessions to get passed. Therefore, Jeretta laughs, “I got to go to lots of legislative wives’ functions and played bridge constantly the whole time I worked for him.”
When Jeretta decided to go back to Lamesa to resume her interrupted teaching career, the only position open was for sophomore English. She went back to Southwestern for the summer to take some English courses to prepare, but she saw a job posted in Borger, Texas, to teach business classes. Excited to return to a more familiar curriculum, she moved again. She and three other young teachers rented a house they called “The Cracker Box” and were even able to get a grocery display model of a giant cracker box and displayed it in the front yard. All the women’s names began with J, and “The Four J’s” later rented another home they called “The Brown Derby.” Three of the four met their future husbands there in Borger, and all remained close lifelong friends, with one even naming her daughter Jeretta Ann. It was during this period that Jeretta married Cliff Thompson, who was working in Borger following his service in the U. S. Navy.
The couple moved to Irving in 1961 for Cliff to go to North Texas State University and Jeretta to teach typing and business law at Irving High School. She taught there until the fall of 1964. Daughter Kendra was born in December of that year. They then moved to Tulsa for Cliff’s work, and daughter Sonya was born there in April of 1966. Jeretta also remembers that the first of a life full of knee problems began during this time, as she was injured playing football in high heels with some kids from their apartment building.
One of her fondest memories of their time in Tulsa was going to the Newcomers Club and meeting a wonderful new friend named Fran, who was from Center and the daughter of then-Center and later-Carthage residents Mac and Ruby McKay. They all came together for a visit to Lake Murvaul, and the Thompson family fell in love with East Texas. They bought a house at Lake Murvaul and moved there in 1973.
Shortly after moving to Lake Murvaul, Jeretta took up a new hobby—sailing. For six years, she crewed on a 26-foot sailboat on Lake Sam Rayburn with the Piney Woods Sailing Club. The team competed in competitions and won championship honors five out of the six years. Her male captain was the only one in competition who had an all-female crew.
After the move to East Texas, Cliff worked for Carthage Cup, and Jeretta took on a very interesting new job. Once again the old “it’s who you know” adage worked for her. Mac McKay was a friend of Frances Fite, the principal at Libby Elementary, and he told her about Jeretta. She interviewed with both the principal and with assistant superintendent Earl Cariker, but there were no teacher vacancies at the time. Therefore, the district hired her as Ernest Brewster’s co-partner as a truant officer and also to put out a newsletter for the school district. “Working with Mr. Brewster was an absolutely invaluable experience for me,” she says. “I learned the county and the people, and he was wonderful at preparing me for all the challenges I would have to face later in my career.”
In 1975 she was offered a job teaching fifth grade math at Baker-Koonce. She then earned her master’s degree in counseling and served as counselor at the school for five years. In 1983 she was elected State President of the enormous Texas Classroom Teachers Association. She was required to move to Austin and travel the state extensively in that job for the entire 1984-85 school year. Then the principal’s job opened at Baker-Koonce, and she was asked to take it. She immediately took 12 hours of classes to earn an emergency principal certification, and for the first two years of being principal went to school at night to finish the permanent certification.
She served as B-K principal for 17 years and recalls, “My time with CISD could not have been better. I enjoyed every minute of it. And all the people at Baker-Koonce were like my family! Administrative assistant Donna Arnold was absolutely my right hand, and I could never have done it without her and without the cooperation of the entire staff and the CISD central office. My first priority, of course, was the students, but I also wanted to be an advocate for the teachers. I always felt that what was best for one was also best for the other! It is so rewarding to run into my ‘kids’ who are now adults and have them share memories of good things from our time together at Baker-Koonce!”
Jeretta retired in 2003 and in 2004 became financial secretary at First United Methodist Church, where she is an active member and also co-teacher of her Sunday School class. She works three days a week at the church and is also very active in several local organizations. She has served as president of the Kiwanis Club twice and also as treasurer, in addition to serving for a time as Lieutenant Governor of one of the divisions of the Texas-Oklahoma district.
A strong community service advocate, Jeretta has served as Chairman of the Board of the Panola County Chamber of Commerce twice and also is a Chamber Ambassador. She was named the Chamber’s Citizen of the Year in 2003 and Chamber Ambassador of the Year in 2015. She is treasurer of the Panola County Heritage Foundation and has been a Mission Carthage Board member since the mission’s inception, also serving as that organization’s secretary-treasurer. She has been president of the Panola County Retired School Employees Association twice and is also a board member of Child Protective Services for Panola County.
Despite this hectic schedule, Jeretta still finds time for two of her biggest passions—playing bridge several times a week and watching sports of all kinds and in all seasons. She played basketball in high school and continues to enjoy watching both men’s and women’s collegiate teams. She tries to join a group of friends in attending the national Final Four Women’s Tournament nearly every year and is looking forward to the upcoming one in Dallas. She also follows college and professional baseball and is a big Texas Rangers fan. She is also a huge football fan, with the Carthage Bulldogs being her favorite team. After the Friday night games she works with the staff of KGAS and the East Texas Sports Network collecting and entering statistics and area high school scores for people who want to look at them online. She cheers mainly for the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL, while the Oklahoma Sooners are her favorite team in the college ranks. However, she also sometimes roots for the Texas Aggies and now the University of Georgia since one of her granddaughters attends there.
Jeretta also enjoys spending time with her family. Daughter Kendra Clayton lives in Linden with husband Gary and daughter Kristen, age 17 and a championship swimmer for Texas High in Texarkana. Kendra is following the family tradition and teaches middle school. Daughter Sonya Pannell lives in Peachtree City, Georgia, outside Atlanta, with husband Neal, a pilot for Delta Airlines. She is also an educator, having served as a paraprofessional with the same kindergarten teacher for the past six years. Grandson Jonathan, 24, is also a pilot (for American Eagle) and recently married Kiersten, a dental student. They are expecting a son, Jeretta’s first great grandchild, in April. Granddaughter Molly, 20, is a junior at the University of Georgia, and Sarah, 19, is a freshman here at Panola College.
The Energizer Bunny in the old commercials has nothing on this strong and dynamic leader! She does indeed keep going and going and going! But like all the best leaders, she always has time for other people and is willing to help whenever and wherever she is needed. She is gracious and humble and does not see herself as anyone special. But obviously she is! Just look up all those aforementioned words in the dictionary and find her picture!