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An in-law-made man

Times Staff Writer

In the summer of 1959, everyone could see that Sarah Elizabeth Lindsey was going places. Beautiful and brainy, she had edited the yearbook, joined the science club and graduated near the top of her class. In the fall, she’d be off to college.

Her boyfriend, Freddie Thompson, was another story.

A year behind Lindsey in school, he was a 6-foot-5 stick of undeveloped potential, awkward and lacking in drive. He seemed to devote himself only to pickup basketball games played at the Concrete Court, a slab set down for a building not yet constructed.

Sometime that summer, Lindsey told Thompson she was pregnant. He responded, friends say, by asking her to marry him.

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Today, with a kickoff tour through early-voting Iowa, Thompson formally offers himself as a candidate for president, the highest ambition in American politics. But the onetime Senate from Tennessee did not grow up with such ambition. He married into it.

That union did not last, but it gave Freddie Thompson an education, a profession, a political party and even a new first name.

The Lindseys, who initially held some of the same doubts about Thompson’s work ethic that now shadow his candidacy, would prove to be the most important audience he ever won over. Though Sarah agreed to the marriage, her family, which included Lawrenceburg Mayor Ed Lindsey, held a meeting to discuss whether to block it. Opinion was running against Thompson until Sarah’s grandfather, a distinguished lawyer named William H. “Bid” Lindsey, spoke up.

“If Sarah Elizabeth sees something in him,” Bid Lindsey declared, “then there must be something there.”

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With that, Thompson was adopted into one of Lawrenceburg’s leading clans -- a family of attorneys, judges, manufacturers and Republicans. Freddie and Sarah exchanged vows in a Methodist church during the second week of his senior year. Seven months later, in April 1960, 17-year-old Thompson had a son.

Over the next decade, Thompson would prove that, with prodding and a little help from loved ones, he could rise above difficulties. By 30, he would land the job that made him famous: top Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate committee.

“It wasn’t a pleasant situation at first,” recalls Ed Lindsey, Sarah’s uncle, “but we accepted Freddie into the family, with no residual animosity or feeling about his personal circumstances. We took Fred in and tried to teach him.”

The couple divorced after three children and 26 years of marriage; Thompson, now remarried with two young children, rarely mentions his ex-wife’s family today.

But people here say he was an in-law-made man.

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Flicker of aspiration

The Lawrenceburg of Thompson’s youth was a manufacturing town of about 7,000 -- with few hills, plenty of creeks and even more car lots -- not far from the Alabama border.

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Freddie Dalton Thompson (Freddie was his legal name, appearing on birth and marriage certificates) was born in 1942 to a family less distinguished than the Lindseys. His grandparents had come off the farm to run a diner near the center of town. His father, Fletch, a used-car dealer, and mother, Ruth, a homemaker, had eighth-grade educations.

Over morning coffee at the Blue Ribbon Cafe, Fletch Thompson liked to crack jokes and gossip about Lawrence County’s vicious and entertaining politics.

After World War II, returning veterans -- led by members of a family called the Freemons -- formed their own political operation to challenge the town’s Democratic machine, using legal maneuvers, and sometimes fists, to win elections.

The old-line Democrats responded by building an alliance with some of the few Republicans in town, including the Lindseys. Each side accused the other of owning the town. The Freemonites called Lawrenceburg “Lindsey-ville.” On election night in 1950, the Freemon coalition won all the county offices after a box of ballots disappeared. The Lindsey family law firm challenged the results. The litigation lasted more than two years.

Before one hearing, attorney Howard Freemon exchanged gunfire with a Lindsey ally in a courthouse hallway. (No one was killed.) The election results stood, mostly because the next election came up before the issue was resolved. The Lindsey coalition and the Freemonites fought for political power for more than a decade, a period covering Thompson’s adolescence.

Freddie’s family watched from the sidelines, with one exception. In 1958, Fletch Thompson scratched his political itch and accepted a spot on the Freemonite slate for the post of county sheriff. His posters promised “qualified but not politically experienced” leadership. He lost by 814 votes out of about 10,000 cast.

“He was considered more of a jokester,” recalls Bobby Alford, a local historian and former columnist for the Democrat-Union newspaper. “People thought, ‘He’s a good old boy, but would he make a sheriff?’ He was too nice to be sheriff.”

Fletch kept his humor in defeat. The day after the election, he walked around town with a cap pistol, declaring that any man with so few friends in the county deserved to carry a gun.

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His father’s failed run seemed to inspire the only flicker of political ambition in Freddie Thompson’s young life. That fall, he ran for -- and won -- the office of junior class sergeant-at-arms at Lawrence County High School.

He also began dating Sarah Lindsey. That he was able to win over the brunet, former classmates say, seemed improbable. He was a clown, known for tossing ice in the cafeteria, making paper airplanes and throwing pennies at the blackboard when the teacher wasn’t looking.

“I think a lot of guys would have liked to be dating Sarah,” remembers Malon Calvert, who counted himself among her pursuers. “We’d say to her, ‘What in the world do you see in Freddie Thompson?’ ”

Friends say the attraction was physical. Thompson had a deep voice -- recognizable to anyone who has watched him play a district attorney on NBC’s “Law & Order” -- that made him the center of conversation at his usual haunts, the Redwood Inn and the Frosty Drive-In, where he drank root beer and ate chili dogs.

And Thompson already had the build that today would make him the tallest president in U.S. history -- though he was not always graceful. He served as a foul-prone center for a basketball team that finished fourth in the state. (“Most of his fouls are of the unnecessary variety and should be cut out,” one newspaper columnist wrote at the time.)

Few knew that Lindsey was pregnant when they married. But as news spread, some people in town kept their distance from Thompson, friends say. His senior year was difficult. He quit the basketball team. His social life was limited to nights of eating sloppy Joes and watching TV with other couples. He moved in with his wife’s parents, Oscar and Roberta Lindsey, who helped run the family’s furniture factory, which made church pews. They could be cold to Thompson at times, according to friends.

Thompson had little interest in the furniture business, but he loved visiting Bid Lindsey, who served as U.S. attorney in Nashville under President Hoover and later campaigned across the state against repealing Prohibition.

For years, Thompson would talk about Bid’s law office, “what it smelled like, with the pipe tobacco, all the papers and books, the atmosphere,” recalls Thompson’s brother, Ken. “It was not typical for Fred to talk that way about a place.” As a high school senior, Thompson read Clarence Darrow’s autobiography. He decided he wanted to become a lawyer.

In the fall of 1960, Sarah, Freddie and their son, Tony, headed to Alabama’s Florence State College (now the University of North Alabama) less than an hour’s drive from Lawrenceburg. He left with a scolding from his father-in-law.

“Fred told me that Mr. Oscar Lindsey sat him down and talked to him like a stepchild,” says his friend Lewis Purcell. “Mr. Lindsey said, ‘Son, it’s time to become a man of reality. Make something of yourself, because you’ve got responsibilities.’ Fred told me that he’d never been talked to like that.”

Thompson rose to the occasion. His in-laws helped with tuition, but Thompson and his wife supported themselves. One semester, Thompson reduced his course load to save money and worked four jobs, including a day shift at the Lindsey furniture factory and nights at the Murray Ohio bicycle plant.

In Florence, the Thompsons lived in a public housing complex called Cherry Hill Homes. Freddie baby-sat while his wife worked and attended classes. But he struggled with household chores. According to family lore, he emptied one Alabama laundromat by putting his son’s dirty diapers in a dryer rather than a washer. The stench is said to have reached Tennessee.

He did well enough in his classes to transfer before his junior year to Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). While Sarah Thompson completed her degree and had a second child, a daughter, Freddie juggled multiple jobs, double-majored in political science and philosophy, and began to identify as a Republican after reading Barry Goldwater’s “The Conscience of a Conservative.”

Thompson’s grades were so good that the law schools of Tulane and Vanderbilt universities offered him scholarships. Seeing a legal future in his home state, he chose Vandy, even though its financial package was less generous. At law school, he became a father for a third time -- another boy -- and won honors for best oral argument in a moot court competition.

“I was sitting in the back with Mom and Dad, and none of us had a clue as to what they were talking about,” recalls his brother, Ken. Thompson had surpassed his family’s expectations.

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Becoming Fred

After graduation, the Lindseys urged Thompson to return to Lawrenceburg and join a law practice with A.D. Lindsey, Sarah’s uncle.

Aaron Daniel Lindsey “was by Lawrence County standards, a pretty good lawyer,” remembers Sam Kennedy, a former prosecutor who now publishes a local newspaper, the Advocate. “He actually read books.”

A.D. Lindsey also held the post of general sessions judge -- an elected position -- even though he had lost three straight contests. The problem was that the victor, a local folk hero known widely as “Whiskers,” was not a lawyer and thus legally barred from sitting on the bench.

Thompson joined the Kiwanis and served as counsel to the Lawrenceburg Community Theater. But in the courtroom, he was “nothing spectacular,” Kennedy says. He handled plenty of divorces and won a few civil suits: a $2,500 settlement for a woman who was suing the beer-licensing board, a $588 workers compensation judgment for a man who hurt his back.

“He didn’t get me what I wanted, but he was honest and did what he could,” recalls Bud Massey, who sought compensation from the Tennessee Valley Authority for running power lines through his land.

On the advice of the Lindseys, Thompson stopped using the name Freddie in his professional dealings and became Fred. “I told him one day,” recalls Ed Lindsey, “that if you’ve got any ideas of wanting to be in politics, I would highly recommend that you get rid of this ‘Freddie’ business.”

Thompson found he enjoyed politics more than being a country lawyer. He took a lead role in organizing young Republicans. In 1968, he managed a GOP candidate’s campaign to oust a Democratic congressman. Thompson didn’t have much taste for door-to-door canvassing or other grunt work, but he was a compelling speaker and created memorable ads that used a frog to symbolize jumping, unstable inflation.

The campaign failed, but Thompson’s work won notice. His timing was good: He had aligned himself with the GOP just when Democrats were splintering over the Vietnam War and civil rights.

The change was evident in Thompson’s father. Fletch Thompson seemed to grow more strident, friends say. In early 1968, he attended a meeting to discuss the presidential candidacy of Alabama’s pro-segregation governor, George Wallace. By July, he was serving as Wallace’s county campaign chairman, records show.

Though friends and family say they detected no racial animus in Fletch Thompson -- he had black customers during segregation, when other local businesses didn’t -- he signed ads in local newspapers railing against communists and forced integration. An Oct. 21, 1968, newspaper ad signed by Fletch Thompson alone said: “Don’t vote for George Wallace . . . if you believe you should let some long haired, atheistic Communist teach your child in college . . . if you believe you should have to bus your child all over the Country to balance the races. . . .”

Father and son remained close, but they disagreed politically that year. “Fred was definitely for Nixon,” recalls Bill Crowder, chairman of the Nixon-Agnew campaign in Lawrence County. “He went to all the rallies with us.”

Fred Thompson’s loyalty paid off. In 1969, the new Nixon-appointed U.S. attorney in Nashville offered him a job as a prosecutor. He appreciated his in-laws, the Lindseys, but he also was ready to break free of their orbit. “It’s the story of a lawyer in a small town,” says his friend Tommy Beuerlein. “You either run the damn town or you get out.”

Sarah and Fred Thompson left Lawrenceburg for Nashville, 80 miles north and a world away. He would return to visit family and friends, but he would never live in his hometown again. He was 27 years old.

The Thompsons divorced in 1985. Sarah Thompson, now remarried, campaigned for her ex-husband when he won a Senate seat in 1994. (She declined to speak for the record for this article.) Some Lindseys acknowledge lingering ill feelings about the divorce, which was granted for unspecified “irreconcilable differences,” court records show.

But when it comes to the presidential race, says Ed Lindsey, “the Lindseys will support him. We always have.”

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joe.mathews@latimes.com


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