In what ways did your Ursuline education prepare you for the work you’re doing now?
When floodwaters were rising around Ursuline during more than one hard rain in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when State Street was unrecognizable and the meteorologist Nash Roberts was drawing low pressure systems over his enormous maps on local television, when Sister Mary Patrick and the other administrators were working the phones and the younger girls were crying — not knowing whether they’d make it home that day — I remember feeling pretty wonderful. We were safe. We were among friends. And Our Lady of Prompt Succor was on our side. Ursuline had existed in Louisiana since 1727, I thought. Of course, we could weather the rain. Our school had been built on the faith and grit of committed women and would endure. By then, Ursuline had taught me to take the long view of things, which has helped me enormously as a journalist.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one of the most important barometers of the city’s progress to my mind was whether and when Ursuline planned to re-open. I reported on the school for National Public Radio after the hurricane and lassoed my friend Sonya McQuarter (Sioux ’81) to record the school’s hymn at the studios of KERA in Dallas, where she’d relocated temporarily with her family. Sonya sings beautifully. She, Sister Joan Marie Aycock, former high school principal Sylvia Probst and then-president Gretchen Kane were so accommodating, I knew Ursuline would be fine.
Please describe the most significant value you learned from Ursuline Academy.
Perhaps the most significant value I learned from Ursuline was the power of listening. Of course, as a student I talked my head off. I never stopped talking. But our religion teacher, Fleta Garsaud, and many of the instructors strongly advised listening as an act of friendship and of love. They were right. The older I get the more I realize how many people feel unheard in life. To paraphrase New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas, they “wish someone would care.” So in my work I try to focus entirely on the people I’m interviewing — no cell phone breaks, no glancing at the time— no clock! I want to hear what everyone else has to say.
Describe Ursuline in one word. Explain.
The best description I have for Ursuline is actually three words: Edna Mae Mock. She was an inspiration who taught us a lot more than the dramatic arts. Ms. Mock helped us understand why human beings behave the way they do — our foibles and insecurities, our beauty and courage, our strengths and joys. By encouraging us to see the world, to be adventurous and — above all — to be useful, she helped generations of girls lead extraordinary lives.
ABOUT GWEN THOMPKINS
Gwen Thompkins is an award-winning journalist in New Orleans and host of the weekly public radio program Music Inside Out. She has a B.A. in Soviet Studies and history from Newcomb College and began her career in journalism at the Times-Picayune newspaper. As a print reporter and editor, she covered stories across Louisiana and in Europe. Thompkins was the longtime senior editor of NPR's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, directing coverage of national politics, international news, culture and the arts. As an NPR foreign correspondent and bureau chief, she filed stories from across the African continent, and also from Antarctica. In 2011, she was a Nieman Foundation for Journalism fellow at Harvard University.
Music Inside Out is a long-form interview program showcasing the unusually varied cultural landscape of Louisiana and its impact on American and world music. Guests of the program talk in-depth about their histories and influences. They also demonstrate musical lessons and connections between genres. Thompkins is the show’s executive producer and host, conducting interviews with soul queen Irma Thomas, bounce artist Big Freedia, the late hit-making producer Allen Toussaint, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the Rebirth Brass Band, the electronic dance duo Sylvan Esso, Taj Mahal and symphony conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, among others. The program also has produced documentaries on Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Danny Barker and Louis Armstrong. In 2016, Thompkins wrote the introduction to the reissue of Barker's memoir A Life in Jazz.
Thompkins regularly contributes stories to NPR Music and the NPR news magazines Weekend Edition, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She also has written stories for the Library of Congress Recording Registry, Smithsonian Folkways and The New Yorker online.