Luther Alumni Magazine

Bob Thomson, friend of the college

There are those people who make deep and abiding friendships wherever they go. One such consummate friend-maker is Bob Thomson of Charles City, Iowa, and Marco Island, Florida.

Thomson collects friendships like precious gems, and he holds them dear. He engages people in easy conversation and has a God-given knack for remembering names. His answer to whom he knows from Luther College will take some time, since his list begins with the Reverend George J. Ulvilden, class of 1916, and includes past presidents, ensemble conductors, legacy coaches, and development staff, and continues to grow.

Bob Thomson; photo by Charles Thomson
Bob Thomson; photo by Charles Thomson

In addition to building relationships, Thomson has a passion for creating connections and making the sale. “You can’t be afraid to ask,” he likes to say. “Some asks are harder than others, but if you believe in your product, and you believe someone can benefit from what you have, well then, business can be very good.”

At the tender age of 89, Thomson is maximizing his second business career, and he’s making lots and lots of sales. For the past 20 years, he has excelled in the Subway Restaurant franchise business. With 23 stores under management in northeastern Iowa, Thomson’s growth in business reflects Subway’s corporate profile. When he purchased his first franchise in 1990, Subway had 3,000 franchises. Now the company is the largest restaurant chain in the world with 43,000 establishments in more than 100 countries.

According to Thomson, two of the restaurants he’s most proud of are his Subway stores in Decorah. “I love Decorah,” he shares with a smile, “and I really love Luther College!” With just a little prompting Thomson begins a soliloquy about how much he enjoys helping students with organization fundraisers, how much he appreciates the way Decorah and Luther connect and support each other, and just how really beautiful it is here in northeast Iowa. “I’m glad I can connect with the folks of Decorah, I just love the town!”

So why then did he not attend Luther? “It’s a long story,” he says. And it is. It’s a story of growing up in Winona, with connections to Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in La Crosse. It’s a story of the start of World War II and the navy and being stationed in the West. And it’s a tale of a young man’s dream of always wanting to attend the University of Minnesota.

Graduating in 1950 with a degree from the U of M School of Business, Thomson immersed himself in watching big-time Golden Gopher athletics. To earn money during college, he accepted the challenge of managing concert programming and lectures for the whole university. Through this responsibility, Thomson learned how to book gigs and negotiate contracts with hundreds of internationally renowned concert artists and guest speakers.

He reflects: “I think I learned how to make a sale from my dad. He was a paint salesman, and he was away from home quite a bit. He was firm with us kids, but fair.” Thomson learned high-speed accounting from his mom, who he calls a “math whiz.”

From his parents he also learned about hospitality, caring for others, and how to give. As a 5:30 a.m. riser and daily Bible reader, Thomson is quick to say “to whom much is given, much is expected.” In his joyful voice, and with a twinkle in his eye, he adds, “and the more you give, the more you receive. It’s a wonderful thing!”

Thomson lives the parable of the faithful servant in so many generous ways and benefitting so many counties in the region. He believes in community development and the critical role of Main Street commerce, partnership, and civic good will. Beyond the support of hundreds of gift coupons and sandwich platters, he has been giving financially to Luther College for more than 25 years. In particular he supports the Annual Fund, capital building efforts, the music department, the Norse Athletic Association, and, most recently, the new baseball and softball stadium projects.  

“Luther students are so amazing! I just love them all! And if I could live anywhere else after Charles City, it would be Decorah,” he says.

The majority of our Luther College donors are alumni or current and past parents. For those who support the college and who are neither alumni nor parents—well, we call them friends of the college. How fitting, we think, for someone like Thomson, who treasures friends above all else.

Thank you, Bob, for all you do for Luther College and beautiful Decorah, Iowa.