Tired of cracking up test cars for General Motors, Dr. Roger Thompson earned his education doctorate from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and spent 36 years as a full-time criminal justice professor at UTC. Before retiring, however, he began working with Haman’s New Drivers to teach student drivers and rehabilitate others behind the wheel—and now works with teenagers, those with special needs and immigrants whose home countries require driving on the left side of the road.
As a driving instructor and evaluator, Thompson is a state-certified third-party tester whose word alone puts drivers behind the wheel with the legally required 2-inch-by-3.5-inch piece of laminated plastic.
As a GM test driver, Thompson crashed or was forced to crash multiple cars a day because they were not yet streetworthy.
“People thought I had it made in the shade, that I got to drive fast,” the 73-year-old Pittsburgh native said. “What they don’t tell you is not everybody has quality concerns, so at times the vehicle would be missing brakes. Or they’d fail to bolt down the carburetor. I averaged about eight crashes every shift.”
Sometimes he took the vehicle out of service by purposely crashing it so it wouldn’t be loaded onto a tractor-trailer and delivered to a dealership for sale to an unsuspecting buyer. “Profits probably suffered,” Thompson said.
He was never hurt, “but I was conscious that I was living on borrowed time.” He took his Youngstown State University undergraduate and master’s degrees—a hodgepodge of forensics, law and policing—and went to work for the Ohio state attorney general’s office.
“After a period of time [as a GM test driver], I concluded I would not live to see 25 and, at some point, I’m going to get hurt. So in the process of going back to school, in this case for the master’s, I took a chemistry course and DNA was part of the study, and that was the hook that moved me into this field [forensics and crime] basically for the remainder of my life.”
He still teaches adjunct UTC classes in criminal justice since retiring in 2014 following 36 years as a full-time professor. He became a Haman’s driving instructor in 2000 and augmented that role with the knowledge he gained by serving three years on the city of Chattanooga’s Office of Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board and chairing a city crime task force. Both appointments brought him proximity to juvenile delinquents and immigrants, as did his work consulting with police officers.
Haman’s made Thompson the go-to instructor for the challenging clients, whose families pay $400 to $500 for a package that includes 30 hours of classroom instruction and three to four two-hour driving lessons.
“I’m comfortable in a conflict environment,” he said, noting that he wanted a work environment where every day would be stimulating and different. “This is true now given a teenage population wanting to obtain wings of independence; patients recovering from strokes, brain injuries, amputations, etcetera; and immigrants from around the world.
“Teenagers yearn for my approval for upgrades in driving privileges,” Thompson said. “I work with Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation. This enables me to work with the medical community, and I work with immigrants from around the world, so I deal with language and cultural differences to be sure. I deal with special needs—visual deficits and hearing deficits. I offer adaptive equipment to meet their driving needs.”
Each workday is different. He has been a driving instructor to recuperating NASA engineers who have helped send rockets into orbit, CEOs from large conglomerates and moonshiners with riveting tales. On a recent Saturday, he worked with a deaf driver through rudimentary sign language. The next day, he taught a teenage driver who required hand controls. He often intersperses his lessons with talks about students’ academic and career aspirations.
“In short, it is immediate gratification that I am making a difference in their life,” Thompson said.
For all his successes—he has taught the children of former students—there have been bizarre and scary situations, like the driver who at a red stoplight calmly said voices in his head were telling him to use the vehicle as a missile, or the driver who was paranoid that every other driver hated him and was gunning for them. Or the driver with narcolepsy or the medicated one with the nine-second reaction time. Mostly, the problem students are teenage know-it-alls, one of whom already has wrecked three of his family’s vehicles and is only 16, Thompson said.
“He’s an excellent driving instructor,” Haman’s CEO Raymond Scott said. “His focus on attention to students and the handicapped community, especially, has been a boon for us and the community. It’s his level of teaching, awareness, attention to detail and just a real desire to learn more about the different conditions and situations that students face, everything from ADHD up to students with cerebral palsy and different issues like that.”
When Thompson feels he, the driver or Haman’s 2015 Kia Soul is in danger, he uses his own brake and grabs the driver’s steering wheel for the ride back to Haman’s Northgate Mall location.
“I wanted to add positive energy into my life and balance the negativity surrounding my work with criminality, injury and death,” Thompson said. “Don’t get me wrong, I like my academic world, but you are primarily spending time and attention on the negative and ugly side of humanity. To counterbalance my sanity, I wanted something that would be positive in nature and allow me to experience the better side of humanity.”