April 23, 2008 Edition

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Ethel Tompkins of Hoxie shares her life history, as a supporter of all human rights, with students at Walnut Ridge School.

Ethel Tompkins is a proponent of all human rights

John Bland

As research librarian at the Lawrence County Library in Walnut Ridge, Ethel Tompkins enjoys helping others with their research and sharing knowledge that she has discovered.

"I like more of the unknown facts of history, the lesser known facts," she says, adding that she has also done a lot of research on women and black inventers.

Tompkins recently spent the day speaking to Walnut Ridge fifth and sixth graders in honor of Black History Month. Her visit was coordinated by Debbie Archer, middle school librarian, and Linda Pierce, social studies teacher, who often refers students to Tompkins.

Those who know Tompkins would agree that her own life history is the most valuable resource that she shares. She is a member of the "Hoxie 21," the group of African-American students who successfully integrated the Hoxie School. The integration of the Hoxie School District in 1955 was the first "challenged" desegregation to occur after the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, in 1954.

Although Tompkins is an African American, she made it clear to students that she is a proponent of all human rights. "A person's gender or the color of their skin should not limit what they can do," she told the students.

"Don't judge a person by the fact that they're male, female, black, white or pink," Tompkins said.

"This is a very historic year with a female and a black running for president," she said.

"It's been a long struggle. There have been very qualified women in the past," she said, while interjecting that Hattie Caraway was the first female senator in Arkansas. "'Silent' Hattie could get her point across without saying a word," she added.

Tompkins, a 1961 graduate of Hoxie High School, shared with the students that her mother was a maid and had to enter her employers" homes through the back door.

"I'm not gonna be anybody's maid," Tompkins said growing up. "That was a driving force for me to get an education."

Furthermore, she was not interested in limiting herself to the more typical women's occupations of the time, such as secretary or nurse.

She is quick to add that there is nothing demeaning about any of those jobs, unless you are not given the choice.

Join the Navy, See the World

After completing high school, Tompkins attended Shorter Junior College in Little Rock for a year and a half. During the summer of 1963, she worked as operator and dispatcher for Chester Binkley's local taxicab service.

During that time, a sign on Walnut Ridge's Main Street at the Navy recruiting office caught her eye. It stated, "Join the Navy, See the World."

For Tompkins, the selling point to joining the Navy was the G.I. Bill, which allowed for the Navy to pay for her college education in exchange for her time in the service.

She served four years in the Navy, with her final station being San Diego. In California, she found people's attitudes to be more tolerant of racial differences. "If you had the money, a person could eat anywhere he wanted, no matter the color of his skin," she said.

After her time in the service, she attended San Diego State for two years and obtained a computer science degree.

During the week, she worked 55 hours as a clerk and typist and would take 20 hours of night school. She completed the four-year degree program in two years. At the time, computers were just coming into wider use, and operators and programmers were needed to operate large mainframe computers.

She spent eight years at Home Savings of America, a savings and loan in California. She was a data entry operator before becoming a budget analyst. After approximately three years as budget analyst, she moved up to financial analyst. She also taught others to use desktop computers.

From 1982-89, Tompkins worked for Hughes Helicopters in Culver City, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. The company was later purchased by McDonald-Douglas. Her job was to purchase, set up and train staff on desktop personal computers. She set up two training centers and held classes.

In 1990, Tompkins came back to Arkansas, where she planned to visit for about three weeks before moving to Jackson Hole, Wyo.

However, she realized that her parents, the late Jesse and Mabel Tompkins, needed her a little closer to home. Back home, she called to inquire about a job opening for a secretary at an industry at the industrial park. However, when she applied in person a short time later she was told the job was already filled.

She was hired by Citizens National Bank in Walnut Ridge to do bank processing, a night job that included preparing bank statements and sorting work. She spent about a year at this job.

Being a reader, Tompkins said she was always at the library in her spare time. Karen Holliday, former librarian at the Lawrence County Library, hired her as a bookkeeper, a part-time job. When the county took over the bookkeeping for the library, Tompkins was able to make a seamless transition to become a research librarian, a title created by present librarian Ashley Burris.

"I tend to go overboard helping women with research who are going back to school," Tompkins said. She gladly copies research to help save them time. "I know what they're going through."

She again recalled the two years that she was completing her college degree, leaving home at 6 a.m. and getting home at 11:45 p.m. with 20 minutes between work and class.

"I lived on hot dogs and A and W root beer three nights a week," Tompkins said. But her desire for a better life made the difference. "That was my goal in life. It kept me going, something to give me that extra push."

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