Ozzie and Harriet was a sitcom that ran from 1952 to 1966, starring the real-life Nelson family. Ozzie, the dad, was a bandleader; Harriet; the mom, was a singer; their two sons were David and Ricky (with the latter becoming a famous recording artist).
The Nelsons portrayed a “typical” American family, where dad was a well-meaning if slightly bumbling guy; mom was all-knowing and loving; and the sons got into trouble and learned their lessons, with lots of laughs thrown in. Children who grew up in those years held up the image of an Ozzie and Harriet family as a standard of comparison for their own, generally more dysfunctional, households.
“I don’t know why you want to write about me,” says Brett Thompson. “In my family, we really were just Ozzie and Harriet.”
Thompson, 71 and a Sun City Palm Desert resident, was born in Omaha, Neb., but raised in Topeka Kan. “I was born a Cornhusker but raised a Jayhawk,” he says with a laugh. “My mother was first-generation Polish, a stay-at-home mom. Somehow, I always remember the ironing board. My siblings were spread over a 17-year period. I think the most difficult time for her was when all her kids finally grew up and left. She was the mom you read about in books.
“My dad was the youngest of eight kids. He had a tire shop with about 25 employees. I started working for him, part-time, when I was 17, and I learned how his employees felt about him as a boss. They called him ‘Abie,’ because he was long and lean, like Abraham Lincoln, and they thought of him as ‘Honest Abe.’ I get very emotional about him. As we both grew older, we became friends. He admitted to me that he wasn’t sure of his role early on, since he had always been the baby in his family. He didn’t get to see his parents being parents the way I did. Being the oldest of seven, I knew how to take care of a child.
“My parents set the bar so high. It wasn’t that you would get berated for anything. It was that you wanted to live up to them.”
After 12 years in Catholic school (“It was about the discipline that you were going to learn what you had to learn”), Thompson hoped to take a gap year before college.
“But there was a little war going on in Southeast Asia,” he says, “so I went to college for a year. I was a decent student, but not great. I just wanted a break. I ended up in the Navy for five years, as an electronic technician in naval aviation. I did end up flying over Vietnam, but that was instead of slogging through the swamps.
“I had the greatest education … in Navy schooling. Ultimately, I was in cryptology with a security clearance.”
After he left Navy, when married with three children, Thompson began a career that fit with his self-described desire for wanderlust: “I worked for manufacturers of centrifugal pumps, as everything from district sales manager to vice president to general manager and finally to CEO.
“In 2007-2008, when I sold the small company I was heading, they had some questions about how I managed my financial relations with my customers,” Thompson says. “It was an easy answer: ‘I spend time getting to know them, build relationships, build friendships. It’s about the perspective of people just being people.’ In a way, my dad had always been my mentor.”
Thompson moved to Los Angeles as the CEO of a company in 1995.
“I’d always loved Southern California, after having been stationed here while in the Navy,” he says.
The move to Sun City Palm Desert came when he retired in 2015. Since then, his golf game (16 handicap) takes up some of his time.
“It’s a sport that doesn’t require you to run fast or jump high. Average athletes, like me, think we can do it,” he says. “And it gets you outside. Besides, I don’t think I’ve ever run into a rude golfer.”
The subject of sports brings up what Thompson considers the mistake from which he learned the most.
“I’ve been an objectivist since I was about 15, so I got into speech and debate, and I was good at both,” Thompson says. “In my senior year in high school, I won a competition for high schools throughout Kansas. But my high school basketball coach couldn’t handle that I was sometimes late for practice. He told me I had to choose—basketball or debate. I wouldn’t have accepted that at 19, but at 15, I let him bully me into quitting.
“In most everything in life, one way or another, you get a do-over … but not in high school sports.”
Thompson’s career took him to at least 32 countries and to all 50 states. He has a broad perspective on world affairs, and he always strives to be objective. That impulse is what steered Thompson toward the Sun City Palm Desert Forum Club. Thompson has been coordinating the group, which invites speakers on different sides of current policy and social issues, and facilitates group discussions to seek solutions. (I have done presentations at the Forum and previously wrote about the group.)
“When I got to Sun City and was looking at the clubs and organizations they have—if there’s a highlight to my life that goes beyond family, it’s looking at things from the perspective of objectivity,” he says.
Due to the pandemic, the Forum has not met for many months, so Thompson has been focused on reading.
“Since my formal education was interrupted, I’m re-learning to read the classics. I’m into Steinbeck right now,” he says.
When asked what his best decision in life has been, Thompson replies immediately: “Marrying Juli.” They have been married for 22 years. Thompson has three children from his first marriage, and he asked Juli’s grown daughter if he could officially adopt her—and she agreed. He has two grandchildren, ages 5 and 14, and delights in them.
When I ask what makes him who he is, Thompson takes a bit more time to answer.
“I still don’t know why you want to write about me,” he says. “I’m comfortable in front of an audience, talking and doing a presentation, but I don’t need to do those things. I have a lot of acquaintances, and a few real friends who know me well. I learned early on that you sacrifice for your family, no matter what.”
How’s that for an Ozzie and Harriet vibe?
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show The Lovable Liberal airs on IHubRadio. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.