A terrible illness ultimately ends a life -- but not the love or the memories

Sue and Jeff ThompsonSusan, Jeffrey Thompson before 2021.  All photos courtesy of the Thompson family.After a valiant battle, with his wife of three decades by his side and having received continuing support from his community, longtime Arlington resident Jeffrey William Thompson, 65, died Aug. 26 from the progressive neurodegenerative condition ALS, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Jeff was known to be kind and generous, and as a man who had many passions. In addition to his career in woodworking, he leaves a legacy as a gifted photographer. As stated in his obituary, Jeff was “An ardent photographer in his youth; he always carried a camera and spent hours processing film.”

Jeff was born April 14, 1958, in Potsdam, upstate New York. He was raised there alongside his sister, Kristin, by both his parents, Kay and William. Jeff earned a bachelor's degree at SUNY Potsdam. He later moved to Massachusetts and worked at a photo processing lab in Somerville in the 1980s. Later, as a carpenter, he specialized in residential remodeling. He also enjoyed sculpting for many years of his life and often worked with metals.

He met his wife, then known as Susan Green, when both were in their 20s and working at the Learning Center for the Multiple Handicapped in Belmont. Jeff worked in the maintenance department; Susan was a teacher.

In a recent interview with YourArlington, Susan said she still remembers that day in the school parking lot very well. She had known when picking out her outfit that a friend was intending to introduce her to Jeff. So, she opted for a pair of new jeans and a red and white plaid shirt with a white collar. On top, she sported a blouse. Jeff was wearing faded blue jeans and a worn yellow t-shirt; his hair was quite long back then. 

“That Jeff at 24 was the same Jeff at 65… but with less hair!”  she recalled.

Connection — instant and long-lasting

Susan said it wasn’t as though she knew from the beginning that Jeff would eventually be the man she married; however, she did feel an instant connection that told her that, one way or another, this colleague would be in her life for a long time. 

The couple were married for more than 32 years and have one son, Eric, who was said to have played an integral role in the care of his father during the battle against ALS. Eric and his partner, though based in Portland, Ore., made the decision to stay on the East Coast when Jeff was diagnosed in order to help out and spend time together as a family. “We could not have done it without him,” Susan wrote to YourArlington. Jeff and his son, Eric.

Jeff and Susan came to Arlington and made a home in the town in the 1990s.  “Jeff absolutely adored Arlington; he felt like he had won the lottery by landing here,” Susan said.

Jeff was diagnosed with ALS two summers ago. According to the ALS Association, once ALS starts, it almost always progresses, eventually taking away the ability to walk, dress, write, speak, swallow and breathe, and inevitably shortening the life span. The average survival time after diagnosis is three years, but, for Jeff, it was even shorter than that. There are no known treatments that can permanently halt the progression of the disease, and there is no cure.

Jeff and Susan spent the past two years remaining as optimistic as possible through the help of the people in their lives. Jeff was loved and respected by many he met. For example, before the illness took hold, he was building a back door modified so that Susan could easily let their dog, Sophie, outside. When due to his condition he could not complete that project, his former co-workers stepped in to finish the job.

“I never met anyone that didn’t like Jeff,” Susan said.

Some Arlington residents might remember a gift shop that once operated in town, Firefly Moon. Susan co-ran this unique shop for many years; there, local customers got to know her. The business moved its location from Arlington to Lexington in 2016.

Almost $98,000 raised via crowdfunding

After noticing symptoms and upon receiving his diagnosis, Jeff was unable to work. Complicating matters, Susan herself has severe vision impairments that make her almost blind. For that reason, she had gone on disability earlier, and, when Jeff could no longer work, he also relied on disability income. 

Friends of the couple started a GoFundMe campaign for Jeff after learning of his condition to help pay medical expenses and otherwise support the family. As of earlier this year, it had raised $97,760, nearly reaching its stated $100,000 goal — the most recent donation, as of Sept. 12, 2023, was $50 from an anonymous donor two days before.

Jeff’s family have been blown away by the generosity people have shown through this campaign. Jeff and Sophie, the family dog of more than 12 years.

“Without that [support], I don’t know what would have happened to us. We would have had to make some major changes in our lives, and of course, we were already facing huge changes,” Susan said. “What GoFundMe did for us was allow us to maintain our life so that everything didn’t blow up… it really was a lifesaver!”

She told YourArlington that the campaign is still active for now and that the money will help support her and cover her expected future medical bills, as she now lives on a single disability income. 

For as long as he could be, Jeff was an active man who loved hiking in the woods, and he was someone always looking to learn new things. He was especially passionate about music, with some of his favorite artists being Pat Metheny and Tom Waits; he was said to have owned every record by them.

When Jeff’s ALS symptoms were growing stronger, he started recording himself saying phrases that he soon might not be able to speak; such as asking for food and water. Over what turned out to be his last year, Jeff was in an ALS communicative program with Boston’s Children Hospital. 

Support from fellow town residents praised

As his health declined, Jeff and his wife moved from their house to a condo in Arlington that they rented from friends, to accommodate his wheelchair. Susan emphasized that the support from community members had given their family lots of encouragement.

“People here are so down-to-earth and willing to help. Arlingtonians take care of Arlingtonians,” Susan said.

She said that they had done their best to live each day to the fullest and stay prepared for the next challenge. One of their favorite things to do in the last year of Jeff’s life was sit on the balcony of the new place, people-watching and enjoying ice cream. His personal favorites were Ben & Jerry's “Americone Dream” and Trader Joe's mint chocolate chip. 

Jeff leaves behind a legacy — especially in the town of Arlington — as a talented craftsman, devoted father and loving husband.

No public services have been scheduled.

“Jeff was just a really special person. He never, ever had a judgmental thing to say about anybody,” Susan told YourArlington. “He’s the kindest man. Sweet, gentle, very smart … I’m very, very lucky that I met him and that we built a life together." 

To donate to the fund-raiser, click here >>

Jan. 20, 2023: Couple stays upbeat despite worsening health challenges

Oct. 22, 2021: A diagnosis of ALS leaves couple in need

This news feature by YourArlington assistant to the editor Brynn O'Connor was published Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023.