Building for Maureen

 

After this Longhorn’s architect wife died three years ago, their teenage son built a Habitat for Humanity home in her honor.

It’s an unusually warm and sunny day in February. Gary Thompson, JD ’00, sips a cup of coffee on the patio of Teo café in Austin. He looks across the street at Seton Medical Center, a brown, unassuming building, and points to the seventh floor.

“I can see the room we were sitting in,” he says. “That’s the last room where I held her hand.”

He then tells me how he met Maureen Thompson, MArch ’97, his wife of almost 25 years. It was the late 1980s and they were both working at Apple in Chicago. When he walked into the office and saw her for the first time, he thought, I’m going to marry her. The only thing he had to do next was ask her on a date.

When he finally worked up the courage, she said yes. The two began dating and sharing plans for the future, and Maureen shared with Gary her ultimate dream: to be an architect.

Six months later, Gary proposed in front of the Statue of Liberty. Over the course of their years together, they supported each other while attending graduate and law school at UT, while raising three kids, and as Maureen endured an 11-year battle with breast cancer. She knew him like no other person could. They were not two people. They were one.

“My only wish for anybody in this life,” Gary says, “is that they find that kind of love.”

***

Taylor Thompson hammers nails into wooden planks and helps install a window on the side of the wooden-skeleton of a house. A white hard hat with the words “Habitat for Humanity” sits on his head. When 4:30 p.m. comes around, he grabs a Topo Chico, while the rest of the crew drinks a beer. It’s a Saturday, and the 17-year-old could be hanging out with friends, but his weekends at the build site have become routine. He’s here for a reason.

Taylor had been toiling around with ideas for his Eagle Scout Project. He landed on the idea of building a Habitat home, and after presenting it to the Eagle Scouts board, he was disappointed when the project wasn’t able to come to fruition. When his mom died in October 2014, Taylor realized this was a blessing in disguise. He decided to build the house, but this time it was going to be for his mother. “I didn’t want her to be remembered because she had cancer,” Taylor says. “I wanted to do this Habitat house to bring back memories of what she did at UT and all of her passions for giving back to people.”

Maureen had attended architecture school at UT from 1994 to 1997 after she and Gary moved to Austin. During her time at UT, she was at the studio constantly, surrounded by drafting boards and parallel bars. “There was nothing greater in her life than to be an architect,” Gary says.

She quickly became involved in a design competition at UT. Seven teams created designs for a Habitat for Humanity home, and the winning team’s design would be built. Maureen’s team won. She was ecstatic. For the next few months, she was on site every Saturday, helping with the project.

After graduating, interning, passing a series of exams, and having two kids, the day finally came in 2004 when Maureen’s architecture license from the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners showed up in the mail. But that same day, she got a phone call from her oncologist. The biopsy showed cancer. And Maureen was three months pregnant with her third child.

During a doctor visit, her OBGYN had discovered a lump on her chest and recommended she get it checked out. “Breast cancer in a pregnant woman is incredibly aggressive,” Gary says. “Had we not gotten it checked out, my kid wouldn’t have had her mom. We got 11 more years because it got caught.”

Maureen did not let cancer define her. She continued to be a mom for her three children, Taylor, Katelyn, and Kyla. And she continued her job at O’Connell Robertson, an architecture firm in Austin that designs schools and hospitals. Whenever she walked into a hospital for treatment, she’d make note of the building’s design, looking for new ideas. She worked up until the week before she passed away. The office was her sanctuary. “When she walked through the doors on the ninth floor of 811 Barton Springs into O’Connell Robertson, she was an architect,” Gary says. “ She was not a cancer patient. She was Maureen and that was that.”

***

A year after Maureen passed, Taylor began fundraising for the build dedicated to her. While at first, he began posting to his Facebook page, he later reached out to bigger names like jewelry designer Kendra Scott and Maureen’s firm O’Connell Robertson. By the end of the year, he’d raised $85,000.

In January 2016, the project began. The house was dedicated to Annette Lopez, a single mom with a young daughter. After five months of work, the dedication day came. Taylor was overwhelmed with emotion as he handed over the keys to Lopez. His eyes filled with tears as he thought about his mom. “I just lost it,” he says.

Now a senior in high school, Taylor plans to study architecture in college. During the summer of 2016, he attended the UT Summer Academy in Architecture, a month-long program that gives prospective architecture students a taste of design. While working on studio projects, Taylor was designing in the same studios his mom once frequented “I was working on the same drafting tables and boards she used,” Taylor says. “I was like, ‘wow, my mom was here 20 years ago doing the exact same thing I’m doing now.’”

Taylor continues to pursue his passion for architecture and helping others by  volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. During South By Southwest, he’ll be sharing his story at a session on March 11. He wants to encourage people to make a difference, no matter their age or experience. “Just saying yes that first time to getting involved in your community, though it might be hard, you end up doing a lot of awesome things,” Taylor says.

Gary sees a lot of Maureen in Taylor. He’s tall, thoughtful, inward, yet loves helping people. “I think he realized that it’s only in giving that you fully understand who you really are,” Gary says. “He didn’t do the Habitat house of any other reason than love.”

 

Photos courtesy of Gary and Taylor Thompson

 

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