Kenneth Thompson has seen a steady stream of neighbors move in and out of Shady Acres over the years. If he decided to uproot as well and sell his property on West 22nd Street, he likely would become a millionaire.
But Thompson has no interest in parting with his small patch of land, because it’s been home for almost all of his 94 years. He built his house himself in the 1940s, after growing up in the home immediately behind it.
And the neighborhood would not be the same without Thompson, who was a charter member of the Shady Acres Civic Club and likely is the subdivision’s longest-tenured resident. His parents were among the community’s original settlers in the 1920s, planting roots there when Thompson was an infant.
“I don’t know where I’d go,” he said.
Thompson, a World War II veteran who spent 40-plus years working for Southwestern Bell and raised a family that includes three children, four grandchildren and three great grandchildren, witnessed Shady Acres’ transformation from unincorporated farmland with no running water, sewer system or electricity to a densely populated urban subdivision with well-traveled streets, multistory townhomes and neighborhood restaurants.
His daughter, Delinda Holland, said Thompson is a “living history of Shady Acres,” and he added a new chapter last Saturday, Nov. 7. His family and friends surprised with him a parade in front of his home to celebrate his 94th birthday, since a traditional gathering would have been risky on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.
About 20 vehicles, led by a police escort, participated in the parade, which took on somewhat of a Veterans Day theme with American flags flying in Thompson’s front yard as well as from some of the participating cars and trucks.
“I had no idea,” Thompson said. “But it was something.”
Among the participants in the parade was State Sen. John Whitmire, known as the “Dean of the Senate” because he is the longest-tenured member of the Texas Legislature. He has been a family friend of the Thompsons’ since 1972, when he first was elected to the Texas House of Representatives.
Thompson and his wife, the late Lee Oma Thompson, were Democratic precinct chairs and election judges at the time. Whitmire said they had one of his opponents’ campaign signs in their yard when they first met, but when Henry Allee did not make the runoff for the primary and Whitmire did, the Thompsons switched their allegiance.
Kenneth Thompson has continued to support Whitmire, with his daughter Holland working for him at one point, and Whitmire has kept in touch by paying Thompson periodic visits, typically at Christmastime.
“He’s a fascinating man,” Whitmire said. “He doesn’t have much to say. He’s just a good friend and a good supporter. It’s people like him that put me in office and kept me there 48 years.”
Thompson, who has survived a heart attack and stroke and lived by himself since his wife died 25 years ago, stays mentally sharp and physically fit by remaining active. He said he started riding a bicycle around the neighborhood every morning about 15 years ago, after his heart attack, and he rides a stationary bike inside his home on days when it rains.
He also drives his own car, mows his own grass, cleans his own house and cooks his own meals, using fresh vegetables from his garden. Holland said her father is famous within the family for making a cucumber salad that includes tomatoes, red onion, green bell pepper and apple cider vinegar.
“He’s totally independent,” Holland said. “He handles all his own business.”
But Thompson has enjoyed plenty of neighborly help over the years, such as when his home flooded in 1937 and again during Hurricane Ike in 2008. He built his four-bedroom house on land given to him by his father after he returned home from the war and with help from fellow community members, including a plumber.
Thompson remembers using well water and light from a lantern when he was a young boy in Shady Acres, which he referred to as “the sticks” at the time. He said there were dirt roads along with nearby dairy farms and cattle ranches.
And some of the area’s most well-worn roads today went by different names several decades ago. Thompson said North Shepherd Drive was once called Lowell Street, Ella Boulevard was known as Dorothy Street, and Durham Drive was named after the doctor who delivered him, Miley Durham.
Thompson sees a much different neighborhood when he rides his bike every morning, but it still feels like home.
“It’s nothing like it used to be,” he said. “We were the first house on 21st (Street). Then, of course, a few were built right after that. … Then it wound up bigger and bigger.”