Hall of Fame broadcaster tells graduates what the score is

May 29, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

First, there is the presence; then, the voice.

Hall of Fame broadcaster Chuck Thompson enters the media center at Joppatowne High School in a blaze of bright pink -- pink sports jacket and pink print tie. Add the distinguished white beard and Grecian nose, and even a nonsports fan would notice this striking figure.

He's congenial and charming -- and nervous.

After 45 years as an Orioles announcer, and doing play-by-play for the Baltimore Colts when they were in town, the 72-year-old sportscaster is about to embark on a new challenge -- as commencement speaker.

"It's a brand new experience for me," he says in the immediately recognizable baritone. "I hope they have water on stage."

They didn't, but Mr. Thompson did just fine in front of the 156 graduates, their parents, teachers and a respectable showing of local politicians.

"The class officials decided on him," said Joppatowne Principal Doris L. Williams, explaining how a speaker is chosen. "Also, he and his wife [Betty] have been active at the school on grandparents day."

That's because one of their 11 grandchildren, Todd DeGraw, was a student at the school. He was also a graduating senior this year and had approached his grandfather about speaking at Wednesday's ceremony.

Mr. Thompson, who was inducted into the broadcasting wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame last August, has been making an impact on generations of Orioles fans, and the Class of '94 was no exception.

Even without family ties, the broadcaster was also the first choice of students as commencement speaker at Fallston High School, Principal Robert B. Pfau said. Mr. Thompson got his second shot at commencement duties in front of its 166 seniors on Thursday night.

Fallston and Joppatowne seniors were among the 1,815 county seniors who graduated in 10 ceremonies over a three-day period Wednesday, Thursday and Friday -- last week, with a variety of commencement speakers, including Harford County State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly at Edgewood High and Bel Air High's own students at its ceremony.

At Joppatowne's exercise, Mr. Thompson broke the ice with students and spectators by suggesting that everyone join in a popular baseball tradition.

"This would be a very good time to bring about one of the things that happens frequently in baseball; in fact, it happens at every game -- a seventh-inning stretch," he said.

Amid laughter and cheering, the audience did just that.

Once the audience had settled back in the seats, Mr. Thompson shared some personal stories that poked fun at his appearance.

"Take a good look at me," said the balding announcer. "I have been a member of the all-ugly team in the American League for quite a few years."

To drive his point home, he told of an event when he was the master of ceremonies and a man asked him why he didn't wear a toupee.

Before he could answer, a hand shot up, he said. It belonged to former Orioles pitcher Dave McNally, who wanted to answer the question.

"I told him to go ahead," Mr. Thompson said. "He said, 'Putting a toupee on Thompson is like putting mag wheels on a dump truck.' "

His self-deprecatory humor seemed to appeal to the laughing graduates, who were wearing gowns in their school colors: girls in white, boys in purple.

Then Mr. Thompson became more serious. Not surprisingly, he talked about the importance of communication.

"How well you fare in this area will have much to do with your success or lack of it," Mr. Thompson said.

"You must make yourself understood to others."

He also offered a few pointers about the world of work. "Let's face it, you will be working the rest of your life; you might just as well learn how to do it right. . . .

"The most important thought i can leave with you tonight is if you don't enjoy a job, don't do it."

Mr. Thompson also told the students that in case they were thinking they would like a job like his they should realize that "they play baseball seven days a week, sometimes 19 or 20 days without a day off. And, remember, you don't get to go home every night.

"But if I had to do it all over again, I'd do the same thing," said Mr. Thompson, who tried to retire in 1986 but was lured back to WBAL in 1988 as a part-time announcer. "It's the only thing I've been able to do and I love it."

There was at least one person in the crowd who wants to be just like him -- his grandson, Todd. "I'm going to follow in his footsteps," the graduate said.

"I'm going to go to Harford Community College next year," he said. "Then I'm going to go to Salisbury [State University] or Mount St. Mary's and major in TV broadcasting."

In his speech to the seniors, Mr. Thompson was supportive of two-year colleges. "If you have a nagging doubt, I could have done more [in high school] . . . we have some great junior colleges, community colleges," he told them. "They can be your second chance."

(Harford Community College attracts many of the county's graduates each year, said Donald Morrison, spokesman for county schools. According to last year's figures, about 60

percent of the county's 1,800 graduates went on to college, and half of that number went to Harford Community College, he said.)

The upbeat Mr. Thompson left the students with this final message: "Don't miss the opportunity to make yourself better prepared for life. Go for it. The chance may not come again."

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