By Gary Nelson
Senior staff writer
A Crossville woman who was loved and admired by family, friends and coworkers alike was killed in a tragic accident last Thursday afternoon as she paid her bill at a Knoxville restaurant.
Known affectionately as Mrs. Debbie by both students and staff, Deborah Thompson, 58, was a cancer survivor, Bledsoe County Middle School principal and was co-owner of Thompson T.V. in Crossville with her husband, Elvin. She has served the Bledsoe County school system in a variety of positions for more than 20 years.
"I would like to thank Mrs. Debbie’s family for sharing her with us. Our thoughts and prayers are with them at this difficult time. Mrs. Debbie was the perfect middle school principal. She loved and accepted everyone. She has left a footprint on all of our hearts,” Jennifer Terry, Bledsoe County director of schools said.
Thompson had taken the day off from school last Thursday and made a visit to Knoxville with her husband, according to Terry.
The two had just finished eating at The Tomato Head restaurant and were paying their bill when a speeding car crashed through the front of the restaurant and struck Mrs. Debbie. Her husband was not seriously injured by the impact.
She was transported to the University of Tennessee Medical Center where she was pronounced dead.
Melissa Reel, BCMS assistant principal, said, “Mrs. Debbie Thompson was truly one of the most wonderful people I have ever known. She was loving, caring, inspirational and kind. She was always concerned with the well-being of others. Mrs. Debbie always made every student, teacher or staff member feel welcome and important. We are all better people for knowing her.”
According to Thompson's biography on the Bledsoe County Middle School website, she graduated from Cumberland County High School in 1972 and began her teaching career as a special education teacher at Martin Junior High School in 1978.
The Knoxville News Sentinel (KNS) reported the driver of the car, Dewayne Edward Kelley, 53, a retired supervising U.S. probation officer with the federal court system, was driving a Chrysler 300 sedan that sped through the parking lot off Kingston Pike, hit the concrete wall outside the Tomato Head restaurant and crashed into the business. Kelley has multiple sclerosis, his lawyer, Jim Andrews, said.
Kelley spent the majority of his career serving crime victims before taking a medical retirement in 2009, according to Andrews. Kelley was also taken to UT Medical Center, where he was treated and released.
“I’m just so sorry for the family,” Kelley said Friday when reached by phone by KNS.
The crash occurred around 2:30 p.m. Thursday in the Gallery Shopping Center at 7240 Kingston Pike, according to Knoxville Police Department spokesman Darrell DeBusk.
Andrews said whether Kelley’s multiple sclerosis played a part in the accident is “for police investigators to determine.” No charges have been filed. Police said there was no indication alcohol was involved.
“He’s devastated by this,” Andrews said. “His whole life has been about helping victims.”
Police still are investigating the cause of the crash.
The Tomato Head staff organized and held a vigil in front of the restaurant to honor Thompson after closing Sunday night.
“We will use a portion of the sales from this weekend to create a memory of Debbie, we hope in her hometown or at the school where she was such a positive force,” A Tomato Head Facebook page posting states.
Several people posted notes of appreciation to The Tomato Head staff on its Facebook page.
Amanda Angel posted, "I am a long-time fan of Tomato Head as well as a teacher at BCMS. I cannot understand what happened there yesterday to one of the most wonderful women I have ever known. I cannot even begin to describe the light that she was in so many ways. Our school and community are heartbroken and its difficult to imagine life and BCMS without Ms. Debbie. I wanted to say that and to also say how much I appreciate your gesture of donating some of tonight's proceeds to honor Ms. Debbie in some way."
Rachel Martin posted, "Our community is very much appreciative for this act of kindness in the wake of such a tragedy. Miss Debbie was the most amazing principal I've ever had the pleasure of teaching for or even seeing in action. Our students and my fellow faculty members thank you for being so respectful."
Thompson was named principal of Bledsoe County Middle School two years ago. Terry said Thompson has taught at the school since 1999.
Thompson is survived by her husband, Elvin; son, Elliot; daughter, Courtney; and two brothers, Joe Paul and George Kington.
Funeral services for Thompson are set for 8 p.m. Tuesday at Bilbrey Funeral Home in Crossville. Burial will be private for family only.
The Thompson family asks that, in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions be made to help build a new sign at the middle school and go toward completing other projects in her name.
Terry said, "The staff and students of Bledsoe County thank Mrs. Debbie Thompson’s family for thinking of our needs during this difficult time. The same irreplaceable spirit of Mrs. Debbie is evident in this decision. Because of this kind gesture, the legacy of Mrs. Deborah Thompson will live on for years to come. We cannot thank (them) enough."
Donations can be made to Bledsoe County Middle School at either the First National Bank of Tennessee in Crossville or the First National Bank of Pikeville.