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VIProfile: Joe Thompson

By Gay Lyons 

To listen to Joe Thompson, Managing Director for Knoxville and the TriCities for Raymond James, talk about the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor for valor, you might assume he is a veteran of military service. But he is not. His association with the Medal of Honor, and particularly his association with the Medal of Honor Convention held in Knoxville in 2014 and in 2022, was by happenstance.

Tom Matthews, Director of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, spoke at a corporate event Thompson attended and offered to bring a Medal of Honor recipient to Knoxville as speaker at an event.

“Someone was available soon,” said Thompson, “so we set up an event quickly. Colonel Jack Jacobs, who received the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War, came and fell in love with Knoxville and wanted to bring all the recipients here for a Medal of Honor Convention.”

Created in 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln, the Medal of Honor is our nation’s highest, and rarest, military decoration. It is bestowed by the President of the United States, in the name of Congress, upon members of the U.S. armed forces who distinguish themselves through “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of their lives above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against the enemy of the United States.” Since its inception, just over 3500 individuals have received the medal. There are currently fewer than 70 living recipients, one of the lowest levels in history.

According to Medal of Honor historian Ed Hooper, “The thing most people don’t understand about the Medal of Honor is you cannot be following orders when you are eligible to receive it. If a commander tells you to take a hill and you go take a hill, you don’t get the Medal of Honor for that.”

There are 32 recipients from Tennessee. With the exception of the War on Terror, a Tennessean has received it in every conflict since it was created.

Each year the Congressional Medal of Honor Society selects a host city where the recipients come together to remember and celebrate the great sacrifices made by American men and women in the defense of our nation. During the celebration, the recipients of the Medal of Honor reconnect with each other, commemorate recipients who have passed away and engage the local community.

At the urging of Colonel Jacobs, Thompson agreed to pitch Knoxville as the site of
the 2014 convention.

“We were up against Omaha and Indianapolis,” he recalled. “Coming to Knoxville
was their first unanimous vote.”

“Our pitch had three parts,” he continued. “Tennessee is a patriotic community. And we talked about the history of Tennessean Alvin York who received the Medal of Honor for his actions during World War I. And we told the story of why we’re the Volunteer state.”

Thompson was surprised by how few people knew what the Medal of Honor was. But Knoxvillians loved the recipients, and the recipients loved Knoxville–so much that the Convention returned to Knoxville in 2022, only the second time it has returned to a city. The only other city selected twice is Boston.

More than mere happenstance was involved in Thompson’s association with the Medal of Honor Convention. 

“I’m passionate about history,” he said. “I am inspired by the stories.” Thompson’s involvement with the convention and his passion for history led to his being recruited for the board of directors of the East Tennessee Historical Society, where he currently serves as board chair. 

“Jack Jacobs said the Medal of Honor is about ‘extraordinary circumstances that motivate ordinary people to do something extraordinary.’ That sums it up,” said Thompson. “The recipients are very ordinary people. That’s why I’m so passionate about preserving their stories. Part of it’s training; part of it’s something special in the individual: people willing to die
for other people. That’s worthy of historical preservation. They’ll tell you most people would do it, but I don’t think so.”

 “We love it here,” he said, referring to his wife, Becky, who is Vice-President of Marketing for University of Tennessee Medical Center; daughter Madeline, who is a sophomore at the University of Tennessee; and son Harrison, who will play golf at the University of West Virginia next year. Thompson, who grew up in Memphis, considers himself an East Tennessean: “I was born in Knoxville; I’ll be buried in East Tennessee.”

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