Before Pamela Thompson made her first bid for the Alamance-Burlington school board, she decided to sound out then-superintendent Randy Bridges, whom she had gotten to know through her work as an advocate for victims of domestic abuse.
“Dr. Bridges was really good to me,” Thompson went on to recall in an interview. “So, I called him one day and said I was going to run for the school board. And he just goes silent. I thought I might’ve killed him. But then he says ‘I want you to make me a promise that you won’t run to keep your seat; you’ll run to make a difference.”
This piece of advice, which Thompson received before she joined the school board in 2012, would become her personal manta as she waged her inaugural political campaign. The imperative to make a difference stayed with her throughout her first four-year term and then guided Thompson into a second, which she clinched in 2016.
Now, after eight years on the school board, Thompson has repositioned herself to make a difference in a bigger, more august arena as an incoming member of Alamance County’s board of commissioners.
“I didn’t run to be popular. I ran to make a difference, and I still can’t believe that I won.” – Incoming county commissioner Pamela Tyler Thompson
One of three Republicans who seized all of the board’s available seats in this month’s election, Thompson will formally take her place as a county commissioner on December 7. Yet, the veteran school board member seems entirely unflustered about her imminent graduation to the county’s governing board. As Thompson is quick to point out, the forthcoming transition is no more daunting than some of the other challenges she’s faced in her 61 years, which she insists have left her well prepared for the role she’s about to assume.
Thompson’s rise to the county’s governing board began humbly enough in the unincorporated community of Eli Whitney in southern Alamance County. Descended from mill workers, including a grandmother who worked in a quilling shop that’s now home to the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw, the future commissioner ultimately left home to attend East Carolina University with the aspiration of becoming a doctor. Thompson – or Tyler as she was still known at the time – decided to swap the stethoscope for a set of shears when she noticed the enthusiastic response to the haircuts she had been giving her girlfriends. She eventually left East Carolina for cosmetology school and opened a hair salon in Graham that she christened “the Hairport.”
Another milestone in the life of the future commissioner came in 1990 when she married Craig Thompson, a local attorney who currently serves as a criminal defender. It wasn’t long before the Thompsons welcomed their first daughter, Natalie, who was later joined by a second daughter, Sophie, and finally a son, Evan, who recently completed a four-year stint in the Army.
While she and her husband were raising their family, Thompson became involved in the Alamance County Services League, a volunteer organization that supports causes ranging from Meals-on-Wheels to Family Abuse Services. It was with Family Abuse Services that Thompson ultimately landed, and she soon joined the cast of a puppet show that tours area schools to broach the subjects of physical and sexual abuse in an age-appropriate manner.
Thompson eventually took on a post as the community educator for Family Abuse Services. She also became involved with Crossroads, an advocacy group for sexual assault survivors, which enabled her to work more directly with victims. The future commissioner admits that the work she did in this capacity, while very rewarding, was not for the faint of heart.
“I’ve seen the ugliest part of society,” she explained. “I’ve been in the hospital many times, and there’s a little area behind the emergency room that most people don’t know about, and that’s where you get a rape kit done…I’d come home from the hospital at 3 o’clock in the morning and just sit in my car and say ‘Oh, my God, the things people do to each other!”
Thompson said that, in her work as a victims’ advocate, she has strived to be a reservoir of inner strength for people who’ve been repeatedly knocked down, dehumanized, and robbed of self-worth. Her experience also imbued her with a sense of fearlessness that she said has allowed her to stand up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves.
“I’m a real warrior for them,” she added. “It’s the part of my career that I’m most proud of.”
With her background as a victims’ advocate, it may be tempting to think that Thompson’s transition to the school board was a regular cake walk. Yet, her role as a school board member has proven quite challenging due to the complexity of the school system’s budget and the various interests that need to be placated.
“I don’t think anybody who runs for the school board and gets elected has any idea of what they’re in for,” Thompson went on to confess.
Since her elevation to the school board, Thompson has also become more involved in her husband’s law practice. Her contributions have included forensic interviews with criminal defendants – some of whom are accused of the same reprehensible acts that she witnessed, from the other side, as a victims’ advocate. Even so, Thompson concedes that many of these alleged abusers have been victims themselves and are just as desperately in need of kindness and sympathy.
In addition to her other responsibilities, Thompson said that she is often called on to be a bastion of support for friends and acquaintances – including her fellow parishioners at Harvest Baptist Church, where she and her husband are longstanding members. In the meantime, Thompson admits that her own life hasn’t been completely devoid of upheavals – a number of which coincided with the closing months of her campaign for the board of commissioners.
“My son got out of deployment; my father passed away; all that happened to me as I was running,” she said. “So, I really am ready to be a commissioner.
“I didn’t run to be popular,” she added, “I ran to make a difference, and I still can’t believe that I won.”