Kolpack: A photo of NDSU cheerleader who died during cheer stunt would be worth a million memories to her sister

Sue Thompson was 14 years old when she lost her older sister, a cheerleading accident that turned the North Dakota State campus silent. It was more than 30 years ago and as the memory bank goes, she's looking to replenish the riches.If there's a ...
North Dakota State cheerleader Janis Thompson is seen jumping in this image printed in The Spectrum student newspaper. Thompson died in 1986 after falling from a cheer team pyramid.Special to The Forum

Sue Thompson was 14 years old when she lost her older sister, a cheerleading accident that turned the North Dakota State campus silent. It was more than 30 years ago and as the memory bank goes, she's looking to replenish the riches.

If there's a photo of Janis Thompson out there, she would like to see it.

"If there's any new fresh image, any story, it brings her back to us," Sue said. "It just makes us feel so good to relive our memory of her."

They're looking for more in part because Janis is being inducted into the North Dakota High School Track and Field Hall of Fame at the state meet in Bismarck at the end of May. Janis was a standout sprinter at Minot High School who can still be found in the NDSU top 10 indoor list as part of an 800-meter relay team.

That was in 1985. She was Miss NDSU, the popular pre-med student who was infectious to everybody. She once held school records in the 100 and 400 meters. But cheerleading, Sue said, was her first love.

Time has healed most wounds. Some will probably never go away.

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The last phone conversation Sue had with her sister was a debate on whether Janis should return to the cheer squad, which she had quit a few weeks prior. She was a senior in her last year of undergraduate work.

"I said, 'Janis, I don't know, you'll figure it out,'" Sue said. "She said I don't know why but I'm going to go back. Those are the last words that I can recall her saying."

Sue said her sister quit the team over some concerns for safety. The fallout from the accident helped start a reform in cheer team regulations, with large pyramids being banned. The story reached the New York Times.

"I'm not saying that to create any issue, I'm definitely at peace with losing her and I find so much comfort in her memories," Sue said. "But just the tragic aspect of the accident still haunts me."

The family still feels awful for those who witnessed it, Sue said. It was nobody's fault, but an accident and nothing more.

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Besides, Sue said, if Janis were alive today she would probably be in favor of pushing the cheerleading limits. She was a flier, the athlete at the top who had the strength and balance.

"She died doing something she absolutely loved, in a way that's beautiful," Sue said.

The family has some photos of Janis as a cheerleader, some running track and some family album-type shots. If somebody has another photo, contact the email address at the end of this article.

The story has never really gone away from my end, either. As a fledgling student reporter, I was the one who did the story. To this day, when sitting courtside covering basketball games, it's still unsettling to watch a cheerleader stand on her partner's shoulders and although Janis' image doesn't immediately come to mind, she is the reason why.

Sue said she couldn't watch cheerleaders for 20 years and only recently was able to put aside her fears.

Seeing the grief and torment of her friends during that week in 1986 stays with you. Nobody who was at the memorial service at Reineke Fine Arts Center on campus will ever forget it. It's possibly the hardest story I ever had to write in 32 years in this business and it came barely two years into it. The emotion of it all came flooding back Wednesday morning while reading through the Nov. 4, 1986, issue of the Spectrum newspaper at the NDSU Archives.

The cover was of the back of Bison football player Blaine Toshner holding his helmet under his arm during a moment of silence, a black sticker on the back of the helmet with "J.T." in full view. Maybe up above those two already discussed it. Toshner also died suddenly, in 2014, from an apparent heart issue. He was 48.

These days, Sue Thompson is 45 years old and working for iHeartMedia in the Twin Cities. Over the years, the family has met people who received organs since Janis was a donor. A couple of meetings happened by chance.

"It was like, you know, my grandmother benefited from her," Sue said. "It's a real beautiful thing. In her short time, she got everything out of life. She was a really good person."