Ace’s Wild lead singer passes of COVID
Most of us knew Fred Thompson as the booming baritone fronting the popular rez band Ace’s Wild. But there were many other facets to the man: rodeo announcer, lifelong educator, coach, fitness buff, artist, rancher, promoter of Navajo language and culture, devoted husband and father.
“I don’t know how he found the time for everything he did,” said his wife of 34 years, Rhonda Thompson, Monday. “He just made the time.”
Frederick Thompson, of Lukachukai, Arizona, died Saturday of complications of COVID-19. He was 57, Tótsohnii born for Dibélzhíní.
Thompson was born in 1963 to Freddy Thompson Sr. and Marie K. Thompson. He graduated from Chinle High School, where his former social studies teacher, Lenny Reed, remembered him as a “good-looking, friendly” teen.
Thompson never strayed far from Diné Bikéyah. He got his bachelor’s and master’s in education at Northern Arizona University, and taught in the Chinle Unified School District for years before moving on to Navajo Technical University nine years ago, where he taught math, art and Navajo history.
His colleagues at the university say he was a friendly co-worker and compassionate instructor who upheld the Navajo tradition of greeting everybody as he walked in in the morning. “He was full of morning greetings, morning jokes,” said Antonio Tsosie, administrative assistant at NTU’s Chinle campus.
Judy Yazzie in the financial aid office recalled he would end the day with a joke as well. “He always said, ‘We don’t know what these students are going home to, so I like to leave them with a positive vibe,’” she said.
Howard Kayaani works in the admissions office and saw Thompson almost every day. He said Thompson was often at work even before he got to his office. “If he saw a student he would greet them and ask them how it was going. If they were having trouble with their homework, he would help them right there,” Kayaani recalled.
Arlena “Bo” Benallie, director of NTU’s Chinle campus, had her office next door to Thompson’s classroom.
“We were in a trailer, so I could hear his voice echoing off the walls,” she said. “What I also heard was students laughing and having fun learning. Most people don’t think of math class as fun, but Fred made it fun. The students could sense his concern for them, and they gave him back respect in return.”
Rhonda Thompson said “kind” and “helpful” are two adjectives that immediately come to mind when she thinks of her late husband. But for all his interest in his students and the kids he coached in basketball and Little League, he never neglected his own three children, she said.
“Each one of them would tell you he had a special relationship with them,” she said.
Rhonda doesn’t know when Fred formed Ace’s Wild. “It was definitely before our relationship,” she said. “Probably in high school or just after high school.”
The group rapidly became one of the most popular and influential country-western bands in the history of Navajo music. “For country lovers on the Navajo Nation, Ace’s was a reservation institution,” said Kristina Jacobsen, author of “The Sound of Navajo Country: Music, Language and Diné Belonging.”
“Known for packing their dance halls each weekend and for their lively, interactive shows, Ace’s was especially loved and known for their iconic song, sung by Fred, ‘The Ace’s Wild Song,’” she said. Thompson savvily connected his rodeo announcer and musical careers, getting the Central Navajo Rodeo Association to adopt Ace’s as its “official band,” Jacobsen said. “Ace’s played the dances after almost every CNRA event, which gave them incredible visibility but also solidified the link between country music and rodeo on the Navajo Nation.”
Thompson’s contribution to the local music scene is indisputable, and that will be how most people will remember him. But his wife and colleagues say that’s not what those close to him will remember.
“He was a just a nice, caring, outgoing person,” said Yazzie. “Every time he saw me he would ask about my girls, even though it had been years since he coached them at Many Farms. That was Fred.
“There’s really going to be no one to replace him.”
Although Thompson gloried in the limelight during his concerts, he hated having his photograph taken, confided Rhonda. She did not provide a photo to be run with this obituary. “We have a few photos, but we’ll just keep them to the family,” she said.
In normal times, Fred Thompson’s funeral would have packed any hall. But in keeping with current health guidelines, the service will include only immediate family. Nevertheless, the family has received “an overwhelming outpouring of support” in the form of phone calls and text messages, for which it is grateful, Rhonda Thompson said.
“We don’t even know half these people,” she said. “It brings us confidence and strength to realize we’re not the only ones who loved Fred.”