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Worth Knowing: Accomplished pianist was the first woman to earn an MBA at Duluth

Frances Thompson played and taught piano for decades in Duluth, where she broke barriers in education. She was 84 when she died last year of natural causes.

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In this 2008 photo, Frances Thompson, most recently of Loveland, Ohio, sits at the piano. Thompson taught and played piano for years in Duluth, Minnesota. (Contributed / Thompson family.)
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Editor's note: Each week reporter Matthew Guerry shares the life stories of residents of Minnesota or the Dakotas who have died recently. Maybe you don't know them, but their stories are worth knowing. If you have a suggestion for someone to be featured, email mguerry@forumcomm.com or call 651-321-4314.

Frances Thompson's students filed in and out of her home for after-school piano lessons each day in an orderly procession.

They usually came in through the back door and had to take their shoes off. Next was the bathroom so they could wash their hands.

"You couldn't touch the Steinway without washing your hands," Martha Thompson, Frances Thompson's daughter, said in a recent interview.

Snacks could usually be found on the kitchen table, where you could wait and refresh yourself while the student ahead of you wrapped up for the day. Then it was your turn.

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This process repeated innumerable times over the years that Frances Thompson lived in Duluth. After a career in music that touched countless lives and intertwined with some of the most accomplished musicians of the day, Thompson died June 1, 2020, at home in Loveland, Ohio. She was 84.

A burial service for Thompson will take place in September.

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Frances Thompson

Thompson's blue-collar upbringing in the mill town of Hoquiam, Washington, imbued in her a sense of self-sufficiency that lasted her entire life, according to daughter Martha Thompson.

It was her mother Eula Dressel, however, who taught her piano. Frances continued studying the instrument at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she started in 1953 and formed a close bond with teacher Berthe Poncy Jacobson, a student of Bernhard Stavenhagen.

Stavenhagen was one of the last to study under Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, who died in 1886.

After marrying high school sweetheart Larry C. Thompson in 1955, Frances made the difficult decision to transfer to Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where her husband was studying.

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"All I can think about it is that she just assumed that's what she had to do or that's what she was expected to do. That was what women did in those days," Martha Thompson said. "She ended up graduating with a bachelor's degree in music from Willamette, but it wasn't the same as studying with Mrs. Jacobson."

The Thompsons moved several times before settling in Duluth in 1960, the year Larry Thompson joined the University of Minnesota Duluth faculty. Frances Thompson tended to the home, where she taught and continued to play piano.

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She considered pursuing a master's in music at the university but, partly because of her developing arthritis, chose instead to enroll in the new MBA program. In 1979, she became the first woman to earn a master's degree in business administration from the Duluth campus.
In a newspaper story on her accomplishment, Thompson was asked whether being a woman with an MBA would help with her job search.

"It may," she replied, "but I'd rather be hired because I am qualified for a particular position."

Thompson found employment with a Krenzen auto dealership in the Duluth area before returning to Hoquiam in the mid-1980s to care for her mother. She eventually divorced and made a new home for herself in Ohio, where she remained until her death.

At her home studio there, Thompson continued to play piano and recorded her grandchildren's audition tapes.

"She's had a huge influence on me, and I think a big part of my drive as a musician comes from her," grandson Christopher Thompson-Taylor, a jazz saxophonist said.

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Thompson is survived by two daughters, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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