Formerly of Baker County, 1932-2020
Donald Byron Thompson, 88, of Pendleton, died on Nov. 28, 2020.
Don was born on March 15, 1932, at Halfway to Robert Dolliver Thompson and Thelma Elmer Thompson. Don was proud of his Pine Valley roots, and spoke often of boyhood events and experiences. He introduced his five children to adventures on family property at Summit Creek, above Halfway, complete with cabin stays, Jeep rides, exploring, fishing, huckleberries, Granddad stories, and a beautiful mountain setting.
Don attended grade schools in Pine Valley, Baker, and La Grande, with two years at Halfway High School, the variety mostly dictated by the work schedules of his father, a Union Pacific Railroad engineer. His junior and senior years were spent at Baker High School. There he played varsity basketball and set records in track for high jump, pole vault, and hurdles that remained unbroken for a number of years. He was awarded the Outstanding Athlete of the Year trophy at the close of his senior year, in 1950. Here, also, he met his geometry classmate and future wife, Carol Weaver.
Don earned a track scholarship to Oregon State College, where he also competed in basketball. He was a member of Sigma Nu fraternity. After his sophomore year, he entered the Air Force’s aviation cadet program and learned to fly, a skill that had been a dream since his boyhood. This launched his 21-year military career as a pilot, first with the Strategic Air Command on the KC-135 jet tanker, and later, the Washington Air National Guard, flying F-102 and F-101 aircraft.
In January 1958, he and Carol were married in Boise. Loring Air Force Base in Maine was their home until 1961, when Don left active service and they returned to Oregon. He operated a flying service in Halfway for several years, gaining mountain and backcountry experience, including remote short landing strips. This proved useful when he next accepted a position as company pilot for Sunshine Mining Company, with its silver properties in challenging locations. The family became Spokane residents for the next 15 years.
Don discovered the Washington Air National Guard in 1965, and embarked upon a 14-year career with the 116th Fighter/Interceptor Squadron. It was a great fit for his skill set and personality. On the occasion of Carol’s birthday in 1969, he was forced to bail out of a crippled F-102, with debris and pilot landing in a field west of Spokane. His injuries grounded him for seven months. Time, therapy and determination returned him to the cockpit and the air for another 10 Air Guard years. He never again forgot Carol’s birthdate! During his Guard years, he was able to attend classes and earn licenses in aircraft maintenance, and served a stint as Squadron Maintenance Officer.
Don retired from the Guard as a lieutenant colonel in 1979, and the family moved back to Oregon, settling in Milton-Freewater. Don served as Cascade Airways’ Director of Aircraft Maintenance in Walla Walla for a time, and later in that capacity for several other regional airlines. In 1985, he joined Federal Express, returning to his coveted role as pilot. Early on, he covered various routes, and also served as check pilot, hiring agent, and liaison to Corporate for several years. Eventually his route evolved into a Pendleton-La Grande-Spokane run of many years’ duration. He retired in June, 2006, with 21 years and many hours of FedEx flying to his credit. Company pilots continued to call upon him for advice on aircraft and engine matters. He felt blessed to have lived his aviation dreams.
His early fondness for horses developed into a major interest in “natural horsemanship.” He was an avid student of its techniques, and conducted classes and demonstrations in Eastern Oregon venues over a number of years. In retirement, Don was able to devote many happy hours to the further care and training of his four favored-breed Morgan horses.
As his health declined, visits with friends and family were increasingly treasured. In the recent past, it was also one of his great pleasures to watch his youngest grandson, Lane Maher, compete for Pendleton High School in basketball and track events, the sports that had figured prominently in Don’s history.
Don is survived by Carol, his wife of nearly 63 years; four children: Kristin Thompson of Boise, Dr. Erik (Lilinda) Thompson of Meridian, Idaho, Julie Maher of Walla Walla, Washington, and Sonia (Mark) Eggert of Bend; nine grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; his brother and sister-in-law, Carroll and Benita Thompson of Halfway; his sisters-in-law, Connie Weaver and Shirley Weaver, both of Boise; his brother-in-law, Jim Smith, of Anchorage, Alaska; and several cousins, nephews and nieces.
Don was preceded in death by his daughter, Karin Thompson, in July 2020; his sister-in-law, Karen Smith; and his brother-in-law, Wendell Weaver.
A memorial gathering for Don and Karin will take place at a later date. Online condolences can be sent to www.pioneerchapel.com