Eleanor Neville McDowell Thompson
Eleanor Neville McDowell Thompson died peacefully in her family’s home under hospice care on Oct. 20, 2023. She was 93. She is survived by her son John and daughter-in-law Kathy, and grandchildren Carter, Jake, Josh and Maren, and great grandchildren Easton and Emery. She is predeceased by her parents, James and Eleanor McDowell, and her younger brothers, James and Robert McDowell.
Neville, as she was known to friends, was born on Aug. 13, 1930 in Glens Falls, New York. Her father was a tobacco buyer for RJ Reynolds, and his work took the young family from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to her father’s hometown of Fincastle, Virginia to a posting in Kevala in northern Greece just before the outbreak of World War II. Safely back in Glens Falls with her family at the outbreak of the war, Neville spent idyllic days as a youth at her grandparents’ house on Horicon Avenue and at their cottage on Lake George, plying the lake’s waters in her grandfather’s motorboat and going for endless swims.
After the war, they moved back to Fincastle to the family home at Prospect Hill. After finishing prep school at Stuart Hall, Neville attended Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia, earning her bachelor’s degree in art history; she followed that up by going back to school at Columbia University in New York City, where she received a pair of master’s degrees; the first in library science and the second in architectural history.
She took to New York City like a duck to water, and stayed at Columbia to work at the university’s Avery Library. In 1964 she met and later married Charles Thompson, and not too long afterwards, John was born, but the couple split a few short years later. In 1976, Neville and John moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where she had a new job as the Rare Books and Periodicals Librarian at Winterthur Museum and Gardens, a former DuPont estate.
She loved working at Winterthur, and soon procured a house on the grounds for her and her son.
“We had an 800-acre back yard, it was heaven on earth,” she liked to say. Life on the estate suited her well, and allowed her to walk her dogs far and wide before and after work and in all weathers, a habit she maintained until late in life.
Neville stayed at Winterthur for more than 20 years until she retired and moved to Bellingham to be closer to her son and his family. Despite being retired, she remained in her heart of hearts a librarian, and threw herself into volunteering with gusto. She spent many years working with Jeff Jewell at the Whatcom Museum, scanning images into the digital photo collection; working on local records for the amazing staff at the State Archives building at WWU; and working to build and catalog the reference library for the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, for which she was named Volunteer of the Year.
Volunteering was just one aspect of a life firmly grounded in service; service to her family, and service to her community as a whole. She believed passionately in giving back.
She had many loves: reading (she was a lifelong subscriber to the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine, and read them all cover to cover), puzzles of all kinds but especially the NY Times crosswords, British and Scandanavian mysteries on TV, the outdoors and nature (especially birds) and travel.
She and her library school chum Barbara Dunlap travelled together for years to such far-flung locales as Bulgaria, France (cave paintings and croissants), Norway and Sweden, Copenhagen, the UK, Japan, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Alaska and more. She and her Bellingham friend Wendy Scherrer also went on a number of memorable trips to California and to Bella Coola, BC. Annual family vacations to North Carolina’s Outer Banks or to Hawaii were a favorite for years.
As she got older, her “adventures” as she called them, became more and more centered on car-based trips with John, Kathy, and their intrepid terrier, Biscuit. Day trips into the mountains (or to the Richmond BC IKEA with Kathy), and weekend trips to the San Juans, Cortes Island BC, or to Tofino BC were some of her favorites (she loved anything involving a ferry). One standout for the four travelers was a 4,000-mile circumnavigation of British Columbia all the way to the Yukon and back.
The last two winters saw Neville, John and Kathy visit the tropics; first to St. John, USVI and then last winter to Tortola, BVI, to escape the winter grey of Bellingham.
“I want the sun to warm my bones,” she would say, and warm them it did, and she would spend day after carefree day watching the comings and goings of sailboats, iguanas, storm clouds, and tropical birds in equal measure from the comfort of her sunny deck, cup of coffee and NY Times crossword in hand.
Just six weeks before she passed, she went on one last epic road trip, driving more than 3,000 miles across the desert southwest with John and Kathy: stops were made at Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, Mesa Verde and Monument Valley.
“Well, I always wanted to see the southwest, and now I have,” she said after getting back home again. “What’s next?”
And for Neville, “what’s next” was the key to a life fully lived that unfolded in front of her and flowed through her passions of family, service, travel, and community, from her roots in the Valley of Virginia to her adopted hometown of New York City to more than 20 years in the Pacific Northwest that she adored. But always, right up until the end, her thoughts were on what adventure was coming next.
One day on her last big trip, as the rental car was rolling through the endless, terraced expanses of the Four Corners, she said almost offhandedly, “What an incredible world we live in.”
For those she left behind, we can’t help but feel that today, with her no longer in it, it is just a tiny bit less incredible.
We miss you mom.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the Cornell University Ornithology Lab, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, or the Whatcom Hospice in her name.
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- Address: 2901 Squalicum Parkway, Bellingham, WA 98225
- Website: https://whatcomhospice.org/donate-online/
- Email Address: email@example.com
- Phone Number: (360) 788-6866
- Description: Whatcom Hospice Foundation strengthens funding and improves awareness of Whatcom Hospice services through community collaboration, compassionate care resources and individual choice for end of life issues.
Cornell University Ornithology Lab
- Address: 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd. Ithaca, NY 14850
- Website: https://give.birds.cornell.edu/page/87895/donate/1
- Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Phone Number: +1(607) 254-2473
- Description: Our mission is to interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds and nature.
Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association
- Address: 3057 E Bakerview Rd. Bellingham, WA. 98226
- Website: https://www.n-sea.org/take-action
- Email Address: email@example.com
- Phone Number: (360) 715-0283
- Description: The Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) is a 501 c(3) community-based, non-profit organization focused on reversing the trend of declining salmon runs in Whatcom County. We enhance river, creek, and riparian habitat while educating people of all ages to provide Pacific salmon & Steelhead the best chance at survival. Our tax identification number is 94-3140165.