Those who knew Ethel McPeak Thompson Bolt recognized she had a varied, interesting and often exciting life.
Born Ethel McPeak in Meadows of Dan in 1923, she graduated from Willis High School. She and her best friend Gaynor traveled the country to areas that both had read about in school. One of the places they visited was a Mississippi River town in Illinois — Alton, just up the river from St. Louis — where she and Gaynor spent the night at the Mineral Springs Hotel, a resort built over healing mineral springs.
Many years later, by quirky coincidence, I became a reporter for the newspaper in Alton, after five years at The Roanoke Times. The Mineral Springs had closed but later reopened, during my 12 years in Alton, as an antique mall.
The patriotic Ethel McPeak moved to Norfolk to work for the Navy Yard during World War II. She moved up quickly through the ranks to take charge of the gas rationing office there, handing out coupons and deciding on those who deserved more than their normal allotment during emergencies. One of those was young sailor Electrician’s Mate William D. Thompson, who wanted extra gas to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle home to Tampa, Florida, to visit his parents after his ship put into the yard for repairs.
Ethel McPeak also rode a Harley, often with the Motor Maids women’s motorcycle club chapter in Norfolk. She talked bikes with the young sailor and granted the extra coupons. When he returned, he ran into her at at motorcycle enthusiasts’ hangout in Norfolk, with a date, Norfolk man and motorcycle racer Joe Weatherly, also working at the Navy Yard during the war.
Thompson challenged Weatherly, a two-time national bike racing champion, to a race through the streets of downtown Norfolk for the right to date Ethel McPeak.
Sailor Thompson won that race and began dating Ethel McPeak. After the war’s end, he proposed and she accepted. Weatherly became one of the early stars of NASCAR but died in a crash at Riverside, California. One of his best friends and a pallbearer at his funeral was another NASCAR star — Floyd County’s Curtis Turner.
Ethel McPeak hadn’t told her parents about her exploits with a motorcycle or her plans to marry and were shocked when their daughter, dressed head to toe in motorcycle leathers, rode home with her husband to be — each on their Harleys. They were, to say the least, shocked.
They originally planned to ride their bikes together down to Tampa to meet his parents but she needed to stay behind for a few days to calm down her parents. Then she climbed aboard that Harley and rode, by herself, from Meadows of Dan to Tampa to meet her future in-laws.
“I took along everything I needed for the trip,” she later remembered. “And extra set of spark plugs, a file to keep the points clean, a carburetor rebuild kit and materials to patch a flat tire.”
At a diner in Georgia, she sat in a corner booth after breakfast and rebuilt the Harley’s carb. The grandson of the owner of that diner later told me that his granddad said the diner smelled of gasoline for two weeks afterwards.
After their marriage, Ethel and Tommy Thompson lived in Gibsonton, Florida, south of Tampa, continued to ride their motorcycles and performed in motorcycle thrill shows.
I never knew my dad because he died in an industrial accident in 1948 at U.S. Phosphorus south of Tampa when I was nine months old.
With me in tow, mom returned to Floyd County in 1954. We lived in an apartment over the Hoback’s Furniture Store in Main Street in Floyd, a space now occupied by the employee parking lot of Bank of Floyd.
She married Floyd Countian Truman C. Bolt when I was eight. We lived in Farmville for several years before moving back to Floyd in 1961. After his death, her adventurous spirit returned and she traveled the world, going to Australia, on cruises to exotic ports of call and other countries.
She stayed active in Floyd, volunteering at Angels in the Attic and at The Jacksonville Center. She played piano for church services. Deteriorating health and a fall at home put her in a Radford rehab facility, where another fall broke her hip. Confined to a wheelchair, Amy and I had to move her into assisted living facility, where we spent time with her almost every day for the last three years of her life.
She told other residents of the facility about her days riding her Harley and we celebrated her birthday in 2010 with my Harley in the lobby of the facility, along with best wishes from those attending.
I sat next to her through the final night of her life, holding her hand, until she died quietly in her sleep after a quiet night on August 28, 2012, at 89.
Mom had told me she wanted to rest in peace with both of her husbands, so half of her ashes were shared with Truman at the cemetery of Buffalo Mountain Presbyterian Church and I planned to take her remaining ashes on my bike, following the same route she rode in 1946, to be with my dad in Tampa.
But an an encounter on my motorcycle with a cow on U.S. 221 at the bottom of Bent Mountain shortly after she died — delayed that trip. It took more than 18 months of recovery before I was finally cleared to ride again and take her home to Florida to be with my dad.
Happy Mother’s Day mom. You knew how to enjoy and make the most of life.