When Ethel McPeak graduated from Willis High School in 1941, she knew she wanted more out of life than some of her classmates.
So she and her best friend Gaynor set off to see the country, spending her first year after high school traveling. At one stop, they spent the night at the Mineral Springs Hotel in the Mississippi River city of Alton, Illinois, a fitting premonition of things to come. In 1969, I would arrive in Alton to start an 11-year career writing and shooting photos for the city’s newspaper.
After she and Gaynor returned to Virginia, the young woman from Meadows of Dan took a job working in the gas rationing office of the Norfolk Naval Yard. By 1944, she was running the office. Wanting to get the most out of every precious gallon of gas, she bought a Harley-Davidson and joined the Motor Maids, the first women’s motorcycle club in America.
One day, a handsome young sailor walked into the gas rationing office to get his ration of gas coupons. William D. (“Tommy”) Thompson Sr. also rode a Harley. She was dating another sailor at the time, a future NASCAR star named Joe Weatherly. Tommy challenged him to a motorcycle race through the streets of Norfolk to see who took the young Ethel McPeak out that weekend. Tommy won.
Tommy had served in the Pacific and was waiting for retrofitting of his ship before heading to the North Atlantic to fight the Germans. The war ended before he could ship out and he proposed to Ethel. They rode their bikes from Norfolk to Meadows of Dan to meet her parents, Walter and Zella McPeak.
Walter and Zella didn’t know their daughter with the wunderlust and thirst for adventure had taken up motorcycle riding and didn’t know what to make of her and her fiance when they rode up, clad head to toe in leather.
Ethel and Tommy had planned to ride their bikes down to Gibsonton, Florida, to meet his parents but Ethel said she needed a few days to “calm things down” with her parents and told Tommy to ride on ahead. She would come down in a few days.
“Don’t try riding that far by yourself,” he said. “Take the train.”
Three days later, Ethel called Tommy in Gibsonton and told him to meet her at the Tampa train station three days later but she had no intention of taking the train. Instead, she packed up the Harley and headed south on her own.
“I had everything I needed,” she said. “A bedroll, two extra sets of spark plugs, two extra sets of points, a carburetor rebuild kit, extra chain links, a tire repair kit and a file for the points.”
She rebuilt the carburetor on a table after breakfast a a diner in Georgia.
“The whole place smelled like gas afterwards,” she would later say. “They weren’t too happy with me over that.”
When she pulled up on the bike in front of the Tampa train station, Tommy wasn’t happy.
“It was our first real fight,” Ethel said, “but we got over it.”
They settled in Gibsonton. Tommy, an electrician’s mate in the Navy, took a job repairing electric motors for the U.S. Phosphorus Plant. They rode their motorcycles together and took part in thrill shows. Ethel became an accomplished barrel racer on the “Wall of Death” rides.
In late 1947, Ethel gave birth to their son, William D. Thompson Jr.
Nine months after their son was born, Tommy was working on an electric motor at the plant when a co-worker thought though he was finished and clear. He turned the power back on and Tommy Thompson died from electrocution.
Ethel Thompson remained in Florida for four more years. She continued to ride her Harley while working as a bookkeeper. In 1953, she packed up her young son and took the train with him to Roanoke, Virginia, where her parents met them. Her bike arrived by train two weeks later.
She continued to ride for three more years until she met Truman Bolt, a Floyd County native living in Farmville. They married a few months later.
But Truman didn’t think it was proper for his wife to ride a motorcycle. She sold the Harley and never rode again.
But she continued to love adventure. When Truman died she took time to travel the world, sometimes with a friend, sometimes on her own. She want to Australia, took cruises and visited places she always wanted to see.
And she continued to talk about her days riding her Harley. In 2009, I found a book, “Women in Motorcycling” that contained a photo of her and members of her Motor Maids chapter in Norfolk, She kept that book at her bedside at her assisted living facility for more than two years.
A fall in 2008 hobbled her. Another fall in 2010 left her in a wheelchair. Weakened by severe osteoporosis and advanced stages of emphysema, she lived out her final years in assisted living. I would visit several times a week and we would talk about motorcycles, travel and her life.
Sometimes, she was angry about being dependent on others — something difficult for one who was always so independent but the anger gave way to reflection on a life well lived.
“I’ve had a good life,” she said a few weeks ago. “I should be thankful.”
The staff at assisted living doted on her. They called her mom. When she was angry and lashed out, they didn’t seem to mind.
Her health ebbed and flowed but she always bounced back. Four years ago, the doctors predicted she had — at most — six months to live. They didn’t know Ethel Bolt. She was a fighter and she would not leave this earth until she was good and ready.
Three weeks ago, her health went into a downward spiral. Two weeks ago, she said she had talked with her parents and her first husband, Tommy. Last week, she told one of the nurses’s aides she was “going home.”
Over the weekend, the decline deepened. She couldn’t eat or swallow. The doctors gave her liquid nutrients and increased the dosage of morphine to control her pain. On Sunday, she began telling people goodbye. She opened her eyes and looked at me but didn’t know who I was.
But she had been this way before and always bounced back.
I visited her on Monday but she was sleeping. Hospice called later in the day.
“You better come back,” they said. “She could pass tonight.”
I sat with her through the night, holding her hand, telling her that I was there and that it was OK. At one point she squeezed my hand but didn’t open her eyes.
At 4:30 a.m., one of the staff who had taken care of her for two years, came in. It was her day off but she wanted to see how Ethel was doing. She stayed with us.
Shortly after 5 a.m., Ethel McPeak Thompson Bolt’s breathing stopped.
Her hands went cold.
My mother was gone.