Ken Tompkins was a guy with an unusual mind, a fellow who didn’t much like fuss or formality. He much preferred tinkering on a car or turning out oak woodwork in his workshop or having lunch at Country Kitchen with his buddies. He loved playing with words, and surely was the only 12 year old who ever begged his parents for a dictionary for Christmas. (Yes, he got one.) He loved playing devil’s advocate in a political argument, and he had a knack for spotting business opportunities.
Kenneth Ray Tompkins was born January 15, 1939, at Fruita, Colorado, the first child of Ray and Amelda (Mock) Tompkins. As a kid, he had a paper route that included the entire town of Fruita and a good many farms outside the town. Like all the Tompkins kids, Ken worked for the family’s wholesale grocery business while growing up, sometimes sorting potatoes, sometimes fixing a restaurant’s misbehaving coffee pot, sometimes making deliveries or working on the family’s vehicles. He was a member of the Church of the Brethren at Fruita, attending Brethren youth rallies and church camps in Colorado. After high school, he went off to the Brethren College at McPherson, Kansas.
McPherson was a small enough school to allow Ken, a physics major, to try things out just for fun. There was the tic-tac-toe playing “robot” he made, which almost always won a game with a human. And those being the days of Sputnik, Ken built his own small rocket and successfully sent it up in the city park.
The year before he graduated from McPherson College, he noticed a Brethren girl from Wichita, a fellow student, and invited her out. He and Janice Bower were married December 30, 1960, at the Wichita Church of the Brethren. They settled down at Durham, Kansas, where Jan taught high school English while Ken drove the 30 miles each way to McPherson to finish his degree. That fall, Ken took a job teaching high school math at Lamar, Colorado, where their son, Mike was born in November.
In 1962, when Ken decided he really wanted an engineering degree, the young family moved to Denver, and Ken went back to school, enrolling at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Money was scarce during the next couple of years. For fun, the three Tompkins’s walked from their apartment to downtown Denver, or they drove up into the mountains to pan for gold. (Yes, Ken did actually collect a small vial of gold.)
When Ken got his BSEE in 1964, he had a job waiting for him in Phoenix, Arizona. On weekdays, Ken designed and built on-board computers for airlines, back before anybody had ever heard of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. One of Ken’s projects was a computer that was installed in President Johnson’s personal airplane. There were a few other projects of Ken’s that Sperry Phoenix deemed patentable. There were also weeks when Sperry sent Ken off to troubleshoot computers on airlines in Los Angeles or San Francisco.
At Phoenix, Ken also had off-hours projects, just for fun. Like scuba-diving every weekend in the Gulf of California or snorkeling in the ocean with three-year-old Mike. Ken built an underwater sound system based on airplanes pilots’ throat mikes and flashlight batteries, only to be beaten out by GE scientists with a much bigger budget.
When Ken and Jan bought a house, they turned their backyard into a jungle of tropical plants, and then acquired another new hobby: squirrel monkeys, small South American monkeys half the size of a housecat, and small marmosets. Ken was responsible for establishing the first successful breeding colony of squirrel monkeys in the United States.
In 1972, when a major layoff closed Ken’s entire department at Sperry, he returned to western Colorado and built houses. A few years later, Ken was building 40-50 houses a year, all of them pre-sold, with a crew of 10 employees. He got involved with the local Homebuilders Association and eventually wound up a member of the NAHB’s national sub-committee on rural housing. To keep up with the need for land, Ken got into land development. Somehow he found time for new recreational activities, like snow skiing every week end in the winter, and taking hang-gliding lessons with his son.
When the big oil shale bust came in the 1980’s, Ken’s intuition told him the area’s economy wouldn’t recover for at least 10 years. Ken and Jan did some research at the city library, visited half a dozen possible cities, and chose Columbia at the best place for them and their house building business. By 1985, their son, Mike, brought his family to Missouri and joined them in the business. Mike ran day-to-day operations, and Ken turned out oak trim for their houses. Fluted oak trim and Victorian corner blocks and rosettes were Ken’s specialties. He used his math skills in designing the recessed double-octagons found in several Tompkins houses.
Although he was generally good at business, everything wasn’t about making money for Ken. When his diabetes doctor asked him, Ken donated his time and materials to install an alarm system in one of the buildings at Camp Hickory Hill, the camp for diabetic kids.
When an amputee friend said he had difficulty holding on to his telephone with his two hooks, Ken figured out how to wrap the receiver with sandpaper.
Ken always had time to help a friend tinker with a misbehaving motor on a lawnmower. There was a time when he and his buddy Tom, both of them grandfathers, worked on getting Tom’s riding mower to work, then raced their riding mowers down the long driveway.
Ken also had a soft spot for little old ladies whose houses needed a few simple repairs. He would take care of it. Like his own dad, he did such things without making any noise about it. He believed in helping neighbors.
Ken enjoyed history and old buildings, and was interested in historical accuracy and authenticity in woodworking techniques. When he was asked to provide some replacement trim for Rivercene, the historic ship captain’s mansion on the Missouri, he was excited, because it was the kind of project he loved.
Woodworking was a joy for him, and he planned for it to be his hobby in retirement. Alas, things didn’t work out that way. Ken had been an insulin-dependent diabetic for nearly 40 years, and his health deteriorated over the years. He had several strokes and some serious falls. For the past year and a half, he was a resident of The Bluffs. He left us on October 8, 2012.
Survivors include his wife, Janice; son, Michael, and daughter-in-law, Deanna Tompkins; Grandson Shaun and granddaughter-in-law Felicia Tompkins, all from Columbia; granddaughter Cassie and grandson-in-law Chris Brubaker of Thornton, Colorado; great-grandson Jackson Riley Tompkins. Ken’s mother, Amelda Tompkins of Fruita, Colorado, survives, as do his brothers David Tompkins of Chandler, Arizona, and Saul Tompkins of Fruita; and Ken’s sister, Elaine Mason of Fruita. Also surviving are an uncle, Frosty Tompkins, and aunt Myrtle Tompkins of Grand Junction, CO; and aunt Lita Carpenter of Idaho Falls, ID, and numerous nephews, nieces, and cousins.
Services will be held Monday, October 15, at Bethel Baptist Church in Columbia, with visitation beginning at 10:00 a.m., and the funeral service at 11:00. Interment will be in the Bethel Baptist Cemetery. Memorial Funeral Home is in charges of arrangements. Tributes may be left online at www.memorialfuneralhomeandcemetery.com
Memorial contributions may be made to Heifer International, 1 World Avenue, Little Rock, Arkansas, 72202 or Trees for Life, 3006 W. St. Louis, Wichita, KS 67203