ST. LOUIS • The ambient music Tony Thompson is listening to is his own. He creates the jazz instrumental pieces when he needs to unwind or escape.
And, sadly, to ease the pain.
“Without music, I’d have lost my mind by now,” Thompson says from his office on Washington Avenue.
It’s here, at Kwame Building Group, the construction management firm Thompson founded in 1991, where he has built a music studio, an expansion of his foundation aimed at providing educational opportunities for minorities.
It’s one of several ways he has opened doors to those who might not have otherwise had access. The most notable comes in the form of a long list of scholarships, which have made available more than $1.1 million over 12 years. Kwame Foundation’s annual golf tournament each August serves as the sole fundraiser for the scholarships.
Thompson also started a mentor program for high school boys and an annual bus tour of historically black universities.
But his newest effort is a music studio summer camp that just finished up its second year and spawned a record label: TBeats.
It’s a fitting addition to Thompson’s efforts. He has always been a music lover, playing keyboards in the University City High School jazz band, which led to a music scholarship offer by the University of Kentucky. Instead, he accepted a scholarship to attend the University of Kansas, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering and environmental design.
It would prove to be a successful path for Thompson, 55, landing him jobs with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Monsanto and Anheuser-Busch, before he struck out on his own.
But as he built his career, he never stopped creating music. Even if it was just in his mind. As his company grew, his brother, Tyrone, who had been a police officer for 20 years, became his right-hand man, serving as head of facility maintenance and management. Both worked to mentor young black men. Both knew the power of a good education. The two men were best friends, their offices next to each other.
Six years ago, Tyrone was gunned down, the victim of a robbery attempt that ended in a shootout. He was 47.
“I’d wake up at 3 a.m., right after my brother passed, thinking of him,” Thompson said. During those restless nights, he would write music, including a tune inspired by Tyrone.
“It’s called ‘Brother,’” he said of the song he cued up on his phone. As the song played through the studio speakers, Thompson faded into a world of memories. His face held both pain and a smile. As time has a way of doing, each passing day becomes more bearable. That was slowly happening for Thompson.
Until June 10.
That’s when Tyrone’s son, Tyrell, 28, was shot and killed during a street robbery, walking with his girlfriend in the Central West End.
“To have it happen to a father and son in the same family is crazy,” Tony Thompson said, anger filling his voice. Police are still searching for his nephew’s killer.
The crush of loss was back, six years later.
“It’s like ripping the scab off all over again.”
But his pursuit of providing education opportunities continues unabated.
His brother would have insisted.
Gentlemen and scholars
Tony Thompson, who lives in Chesterfield with his wife, Kim, and has two college-educated children, wasn’t raised with the challenges that many urban black young men face.
“The difference is I had a father at home stressing education,” Thompson said. He and his two brothers and sister were raised by Jack Thompson, a former Air Force military police officer, and Betty, a former state representative and longtime employee of the Human Development Corporation.
His family moved from St. Louis to University City when Thompson was in the fourth grade. He remembers the lack of black male teachers, and the boys who looked like him shifting their attention to athletics, something he sees today in his work with schools. As he made his way through college and into the corporate world, Thompson knew his success was driven by education.
“It is to me the single most important neutralizer to solve a lot of the problems in our society,” Thompson said. “If you look at the demographics on those committing crimes, for example, I can’t imagine many of them having graduate degrees, and question whether they finished high school.”
Thompson’s talk is blunt. He sees no reason to sugarcoat. He has long been a mentor to teens. Ten years ago, with his brother, he began the Gentlemen’s Club at Carnahan High School of the Future in the Dutchtown neighborhood. Alice Roach was principal at the time.
“It was a very different school then,” Roach said. Attendance was low. Grades were poor. The students, especially the boys, had no desire to participate. She had heard about Thompson’s work in the community and invited him to Carnahan.
His talks with students eventually turned into the Gentlemen’s Club, a weekly get-together of about 15 students a year. He brings in other businessmen to talk about success. He teaches the students how to play the stock market, paying those whose choices had the largest yield. He takes them to restaurants for lessons in manners and respect. He buys them books to read and discuss. Selections from Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson alongside “The Mis-Education of the Negro” and “Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys.”
One Emerson passage he stresses to the students: “The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.”
Why try to be someone else, and limit yourself? Thompson asks the students.
The young men in the club are required to dress up. To get prepared for the corporate world. Thompson buys suits and ties for those who can’t afford them.
Dajon Stewart remembers seeing friends in the hallways gussied up, wondering what all the fuss was about. In his junior year, he joined the club. Members determine who gets in.
“I love dressing up. It shows that you’re a leader of the school and you can be professional,” said Stewart, 19, now a student at Harris-Stowe State University. “I felt special to be a part of it.”
Roach says Thompson offers help that is genuine and sustained.
“Those kids could read you like a book and know if you’re a fake or a phony, and Tony Thompson is the real deal,” she said.
Thompson said he’s doing nothing extraordinary.
“They just want somebody to give a damn,” Thompson said.
The program has paid off, said Jonathan Griffin, assistant principal of Carnahan. More than 200 students have participated in the Gentlemen’s Club. Every one has graduated from high school, including Eric Williams.
Williams, 19, begins his second year at Southeast Missouri State University this fall and credits Thompson for instilling confidence.
“He wanted us to make a change in our community. He wanted us to be the standard, for others to look up at us and at what we’re doing,” Williams said. “He told us if you got a dream, go chase it. Don’t ever stop striving for greatness.”
Roach said Tony and Tyrone Thompson changed lives at Carnahan, where the Gentlemen’s Club will kick off a new year shortly after school begins on Wednesday.
“Their mission was to transform these young boys into young men. They did just that.”
To the fairways
Later this month, Kwame Foundation will host its 13th-annual golf tournament in Forest Park. The event has brought in more than a million dollars to set up scholarship funds, including one in Tyrone’s name at Washington University. It’s a project Thompson and his brother looked forward to each year. As golf buddies, the event served as a perfect blend of work and fun. A four-man scramble. Lunch on the course. Cocktail reception. An awards ceremony and auction.
The scholarships run the gamut, from community college to Washington University’s school of engineering. Not everyone is suited for an elite four-year college, Thompson said, so he likes to spread the financial opportunities around.
“The key is to get minorities and first-generation kids into college. I didn’t care where. They just need to get an education,” he said.
Thompson typically does not get involved in the award process, leaving that up to the schools. Instead, he focuses his direct involvement in other areas, notably the Gentlemen’s Club at Carnahan and a project he helped start after his brother’s death: the Tyrone Thompson Institute for Nonviolence.
Through the program, St. Louis Community College students tutor and mentor elementary and middle school students suspended for fighting and other distractions. The St. Louis Public School District provides the learning space, allowing the students to remain in an academic environment instead of sitting at home. Parents of the suspended child are required to go through a one-day workshop, and the district does not lose funding by having the student out of class on a suspension.
Music and ‘finesse’
Two years ago, Thompson began a summer program to teach students to produce music. To give himself street cred, Thompson was selected to study in France last year with Young Guru, the longtime sound engineer for Jay Z, as part of a 10-day “Mix with the Masters” class.
Thompson said teens should not automatically think of themselves as hip-hop stars but consider a behind-the-scenes career. Music production is an industry still largely untapped by minorities and is filled with possibilities, he said.
But when he sees star potential, Thompson works to make it flourish. He created TBeats, a record label that has signed four performers, including Brianna Elise Brown, 19, who is beginning her junior year at Webster University and is a recipient of a Kwame Foundation scholarship.
“I’ve heard him say quite a few times: The first 50 years is spent living for yourself, building up your wealth, traveling, getting married, having kids. The next half of your life should be giving back.”
Music continues to take on a larger role in Thompson’s life, as a coping mechanism and in building on his work to provide educational opportunities for minority students. He knows the power it possesses.
Like he did after Tyrone’s death, he composed a musical piece to help deal with Tyrell’s murder. It, too, is a jazz instrumental, carrying with it an easygoing smile, a lingering sadness. Its working title is “Tragedy.”
Down the hall from the music studio is a planned space for visual artists to create and display their works. Another educational opportunity. It is expected to open by November to mark Tyrell’s 29th birthday. It will likely be called Finesse Art Center.
What Thompson didn’t know until he went to his nephew’s funeral was that Tyrell’s nickname was Finesse. He was a graphic illustrator, working across the street from Kwame, at tech company LockerDome.
A friend or colleague would be working on something that did not have the right pizzazz and ask Tyrell to “finesse it.” Thompson wishes Tyrell was here to finesse the art studio, to truly make it his own. Thompson feels as though he has disappointed his brother, failing to keep his nephew safe, away from the violence that took both father and son.
“I couldn’t fix this,” Thompson says in frustration.
The musical creation for Tyrell continues to get tweaked, like many of the instrumental pieces Thompson has crafted. Maybe he will add words, borrowing from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
“I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone, I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again.
“I am to see to it that I do not lose you.”