When Don Thompson gets into French history, he does it with a passion. A retired teacher, Thompson prepared for his new career in living history with the help of his teacher wife Carol, show-and-tell artifacts from his own collection, and plenty of homework.
In 2009, Thompson became a familiar face to thousands of tourists-and residents of Vermont, New York and Quebec-portraying the bold French explorer Samuel de Champlain. Last year marked the 400th anniversary of Champlain's visit to the great freshwater lake that now bears his name, Lake Champlain.
Thompson grew up in Tappan, N.Y., near the site where Revolutionary British spy Major John Andre was hung over the Benedict Arnold affair. As a result of this early connection with history, Thompson has always been a student of America's storied past.
The actor graduated from Hope College in Michigan with an undergraduate degree in history. He went on to graduate school at SUNY-Albany where he received a master's degree in geography. He taught in Michigan and Vermont schools but then relocated to western New York to teach for 29 years. After retirement, he and his wife Carol returned to Vermont. They maintain homes in Vermont and Florida.
"I love local history," Thompson said. "Where ever I live, I want to know about the area, so I've spent a lot of time studying and understanding the past on a local level."
According to a Florida news article, "Thompson continues his active interest in local history wherever he is living... He has researched the history of Egmont Key in Tampa Bay and gives talks on the island to civic groups and libraries, and also does first-person school programs on railroad baron Henry B. Plant and Andrew Carnegie."
While living in the Syracuse area, Thompson was hired to be an interpreter at the reconstructed site of a 17th-century Jesuit mission called Saint Marie Among the Iroquois. His interest in history also found him involved in archeological digs around the region.
Thompson received several awards for his work, including one from Business Week magazine for "innovative teaching in creating a simulated archaeological dig activity for his students". And the reenactor has participated in digs at Rogers Island, N.Y., and Vermont's Mt. Independence.
The centuries-long shadows cast by Champlain and Hudson kept him busy with public appearances throughout the region during the twin quadricentennials.
"Few people realize just how far and wide Champlain explored in the Northeast," Thompson said. "He explored the coast of New England by ship, traveled out to western New York, and then went as far as Lake Huron. And unlike the English and Spanish, Champlain treated the Indians a lot more fairly. In fact, many Indians came to respect Champlain and his legend was kept alive orally by Natives for years-even in the far West. I believe Champlain probably converted from Protestantism to Catholicism after being in the New World a few years."
There is some evidence that Champlain even explored parts of the Susquehanna River watershed in southcentral New York and perhaps traversed the big river as far south as Pennsylvania.
Like British explorer Henry Hudson, a bigger-than-life figure Thompson is also portraying during the 2009 Hudson Quadricentennial in the Hudson Valley, Champlain searched for a mythical northern water route from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
"My wife Carol and I just wrote a book, titled "Seeking the Northwest Passage: The Explorations and Discoveries of Champlain and Hudson", which examines the Northwest Passage dreams of these men. They were fascinating, colorful people."
The couple's Northwest Passage book was published in 2008 by Purple Mountain Press. And Don Thompson has written the book "Lake Bomoseen: The Story of Vermont's Largest , Little-Known Lake". Both books are available on the Internet, at local signings, or through the author(s) at email@example.com.
Thompson travelsg around Vermont portraying his personal favorite-Samuel de Champlain.
"It's hard work but I love it," he said. "My mission is to keep the spirit of this great man alive."