Remembering E. Roger Thompson, the ‘philosopher carpenter’ behind Coyote Construction

He hardened hundreds of Bay Area homes against earthquakes and flooding, while providing life lessons to a cosmopolitan cast of young workers.

E. Roger Thompson stenciled a distinctive logo — a disjointed coyote resembling an Anasazi petroglyph— on his yellow pickup. Credit: Susana England

E. Roger Thompson (his given first name, like his father’s, was Edward, but formally he used only the vestigial initial) was born Oct. 29, 1938, in Oakland. He died of prostate cancer at home in Berkeley on Oct. 23 — six days shy of his 83rd birthday.

Driving through the blue-collar neighborhood in San Leandro where he spent his childhood, Roger Thompson grinned and observed to his passenger, “There weren’t many college graduates around here. You could throw a wrench in any direction and hit a machinist.”

E. Roger Thompson. Credit: Susana England

Thompson’s father was a railroad man. A dining car supervisor for Southern Pacific, he often took his family — Roger, his mother, Ethlyn, and older sister Carol — on “deadheading” rail trips throughout the western United States and Canada. Summer camping with the Boy Scouts gave young Roger a love for outdoor life in the mountains of California and the high desert of Nevada. At 16 he bicycled through England.

Horizons unbounded, he enrolled at Berkeley. His proud father, he recalled, once introduced him to a friend as “my son, the University of California.”

Although his degree was in political science, Thompson found a natural affinity for social work. While in college he taught boys at the county juvenile hall and after graduation ran an outreach project for San Quentin prisoners, both sponsored by Stiles Hall, a UC Berkeley-based private, nonprofit community and student service center. He coordinated a sweeping review of the quality of contemporary drug abuse educational films (abysmal was the verdict, à la “Reefer Madness”) for the University of California Extension Media Center. He joined the counseling staff of the federally-funded Drug Abuse Training Center, Hayward.

In 1970 he was hired to establish, from the ground up, a Modesto drop-in center for youthful Stanislaus County drug abusers, called Head Rest. With a minuscule budget and a staff of one, Thompson laid the foundation for an organization that today, renamed the Center for Human Services, employs 250, with another 100 volunteers, and serves 20,000 clients on a budget of $12 million a year.

In 1963 Thompson married Berkeley ceramic artist and teacher Andrée Singer. They had two sons, Nathan and Paul. Although they separated seven years later, they remained married for another 16 years — during which, wanting to be closer to his children living with their mother, Thompson returned to Berkeley from Modesto.

An alternative movement

Like many highly educated men and women who in the late 1970s had become disenchanted with the white-collar world, Thompson, working with a friend, Raleigh Scovil (an ex-university lecturer with a doctorate in history, now of Los Angeles), took up freelance carpentry. Never mind that Thompson had no training in it.

“We thought of ourselves as an alternative movement,” he explained in a reflection he wrote in 2001. “[We took] pride in the fact that by working with our hands we were following in an important tradition, almost like the guilds from the Middle Ages, or the yeoman farmer in Jeffersonian America.”

First with the more seasoned Scovil, then on his own, Thompson quickly found an independent construction niche that was lucrative, in high demand, presented minimal competition and required skills that he could largely refine on the job.

The Bay Area had been rattled by earthquakes. Owners of older homes were being warned that structures not bolted securely to their foundations (not a hallmark of early 20th-century construction) were in grave danger. Trouble was, few contractors were eager to take on such jobs, which often required squirming into narrow, muddy crawl spaces, fending off rodents and insects, working in dim light, digging footings and relocating leaky, smelly sewer lines. If others were reluctant to do it, Thompson was game.

He licensed his business as Coyote Construction. He stenciled a distinctive logo — a disjointed coyote resembling an Anasazi petroglyph— on his yellow pickup and on T-shirts for his crew. He was in the midst of a job in the Berkeley Hills when the Loma Prieto earthquake struck. One corner of the house was supported only by a temporary pier. Thompson anxiously called the homeowner as the tremors subsided. All was well, he was told.

“Hm!” Thompson observed drily. “We must do good work.”

“Over the years I had probably 25 different employees,” he recalled in 2001. “In the late ‘70s it seemed like they were artists, or student dropouts, even some dropout Ph.Ds. In the early ‘80s my source pool came from my son’s teenage or college student friends. There were a couple of guys from Japan, a new immigrant from Hungary, five different women….

“The high school dropouts were the most dependable,” he continued, “not about showing up but about always needing work. One guy I hired five times … and fired five times. We liked each other, and had an understanding. One of my son’s high school friends stayed with me for three years, another, a friend of my son from Bennington College, remained with me for nine years. … There was the guy I picked up hitchhiking, and, of course, the Chicano rap singer, the cartoonist, and the Bryn Mawr dropout who was the daughter of my former wife’s then-current boyfriend. I’ve been through it. And when I look back, I realize I loved it. … Other contractors made money. I had fun.”

Jungle to Desert

In 2004 Thompson recruited a longtime friend and fellow contractor, Jonathan Langdon (now of Port Townsend, Washington), to join him on a three-month assignment to build an ecotourism lodge near picturesque Raleighvallen falls on the Coppename River, 125 miles by dugout canoe inland from the coast of Suriname. Under the auspices of Conservation International they labored in the stifling South American jungle heat with indigenous Maroons (descendants of escaped African slaves) and Carib Indians. Thompson and Langdon lasted six weeks. But both volunteered for subsequent stints — bolstering the trove of stories with which the garrulous Thompson regaled friends, larded with his signature sly wit and occasional strategic exaggeration.

On a Coyote Construction job in Berkeley, Thompson met harpist, mixed media artist and painter Susana England. They would live together for 35 years, sharing her house in Rockridge and a compound of two travel trailers, an outhouse and an assortment of gazebos on a windswept plot of land Thompson bought in Unionville, Nevada. The population of the remote hamlet, commemorated in Mark Twain’s Roughing It, swelled by an eighth when they were in residence.

Dogs and books were Thompson’s constant companions. He favored vintage human names for the former — Cynthia, Leonard — and history, especially of the West, among the latter. But his reading tastes were eclectic, and the highlight of any day was a stroll to browse the nearest Berkeley bookstore, a visit by the local bookmobile to Unionville or a one-hour drive, wary of free-range cattle, to the Winnemucca Public Library.

He wrote as well. An entertaining sampling of his work can be read online on his website.

How a man can be

Meeting the challenges of hard, dirty labor while sharing the familial spirit and cheer in adversity that Thompson encouraged was a memorable passage in the young lives of his employees. He had a special affection for those who “called themselves ‘lifers.’” 

“They don’t present the ‘happy face,’” he noted. “They present problems. They might be late, their cars break down, they forget their lunch (or lunch money), and can’t afford to buy the boots I require. And they argue with you on how things should be done. And guess what? Sometimes their arguments prove to be correct, if only I will listen. And often they are mechanical (you do learn things from trying to get your junk car running in the morning). And they respond to being included in a project where there is a group mission and the boss appreciates them with adequate payment.”

Many remained in fond contact over the years. Thompson commemorated their varied origins as additions to his logo, so that soon his truck advertised “Coyote Construction: Berkeley, Kyoto, Budapest, Tegucigalpa….”

“Address any complaints,” he would advise clients, “to the Budapest office.”

“I worked for Roger in 1984,” recalled T. Kent Hikida, now an associate professor of construction management at the Pratt Institute, in New York City. “It was a great mix of physical labor and intellectual discussion.”

From Thompson, whom he described as a “philosopher carpenter,” Hikida learned “more than just carpentry and construction,” he wrote. “I learned to love and enjoy life every day, and to build a life based on your passions. I learned to not give a damn about what other people think about you or what you think they think you should do, but to look deep into yourself and to build a foundation and shelter for your own soul. For these lessons, for the laughter, for the blood, sweat, tears, and his friendship and mentorship, I will forever be in his debt.”

Now a physician specializing in pain therapy through music in Uppsala, Sweden, Magnus Peterson offered almost identical email testimony.

“For me he is always in the driver’s seat of his truck with the Coyote logo on the door,” Peterson wrote, “his dog in his very own place on the passenger seat, as we stop for morning coffee and exchange of tasks and workers at the usual corner….

“This picture,” he declared, “this idea, of two men (Roger and Raleigh) standing on their own two feet (strong, but with such warmth and humanness), opened a door for me. About how a man can be. It has remained my ideal (and inspiration) throughout all the ups and downs of family life and work life. There is perhaps no better way to express or explain all this has meant to me than by the fact that the Coyote t-shirt has remained with me since.”

He leaves two sons, Nathan Thompson, of Brooklyn, New York, and Paul Thompson, of Berkeley; daughter-in-law Eva; grandchildren Sofia and Alex; his partner Susana England; his ex-wife, Andrée Singer Thompson; and six nieces.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Thompson’s photographer, Susana England.