It has been an ordinary life, really. At 97, Mulry Thompson would be the first person to say so.
But Thompson's life has mirrored the remarkable changes that have occurred in the places he has known--Washington and surrounding rural areas.
It was a life in three acts: Mulry Thompson spent his childhood on remote St. George Island in St. Mary's County, fishing its waters alongside his waterman father. Then he went off to Washington to seek his fortune and also found love and raised a family. He returned to his birthplace in 1960 to live out his retirement years on the shores of his beloved Potomac River.
He has seen the evolution of the region's natural world--as the waters darkened with pollution and the crabs became scarce--and he has watched Washington change from a sleepy southern outpost to a thriving world capital.
But he always remained a waterman's son at heart. "I'm just an old country boy," he said. When news of the end of World War II finally reached him, through one of his young sons, he was hunting squirrels in woods near Arlington.
Slight now, Thompson has still-bright blue eyes and curly gray hair, which he used to slick down with pomade to make it behave. He lives alone in a neatly kept white house on St. George Island, a remote, windswept island in the Potomac River near the southern end of St. Mary's County, about 90 miles south of Washington.
"I'm still hanging around here," Thompson said cheerfully one recent sunny day as he sat reminiscing in a recliner in his living room. "I'd like to live to be 100, as long as I can still do for myself."
Since his wife died in 1991 at age 87, he has gotten good at heating up frozen dinners in the microwave. He has always refused his children's offers to come and live with them. He tells them he was born on this island and wants to die here.
He manages. "He keeps a good house for a man," said his daughter, Mildred Beery of Lake Ridge, who is 73 and comes to stay with him when she can. "But he can't see the dust!"
Thompson was born on the island on Sept. 30, 1902. There was no bridge linking it to the mainland then, he recalled. His family and the island's other residents traveled back and forth by log canoes. It was a primitive place by today's standards--no running water, no electricity, no indoor plumbing.
Thompson always thought he'd grow up to be a waterman like his father, but then one day his father gave him some advice that would change his life.
"Try and get away from here," Robert Thompson told his son, as Mulry Thompson recalled it. "You'll exist but you won't have nothin'."
Thompson took his father at his word, and, nearly seven decades later, he still gets tears in his eyes when he remembers leaving home, walking down the road from his home and turning back and seeing his mother waving at the door.
"I can see her now," he said, his voice filled with emotion. "She was standing at the door waving to me. . . . I'll never forget it as long as I live."
Just 16 when he arrived in Washington, Thompson sailed to the city aboard a boat carrying watermelons. From the cabin of his boat he could see a large building around 14th and C streets SW, covered in little blue lights. He wondered to himself what that big building was. It turned out to be the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a federal agency that would play a major role in his life.
A short time later he lied about his age, claiming he was 18, and got a job at Engraving and Printing, tying bundles of money. He first worked in the "trimming" room, where printed sheets of bills were cut and trimmed to size.
"I was an old country boy, and I knew how to make knots," he said. A few weeks later, World War I ended. He remembers seeing from his office window workers--who were laid off to make room for returning troops--streaming out into the street. His job was spared, and eventually he was promoted to the electrician's shop.
His luck held. "I was too young for World War I and too old for World War II, isn't that something?" he marveled, all this time later. "Sometimes I think the Lord was behind me."
By that time he had married and was on his way to fathering four children. His wife, Ethel Hern, a native of Round Hill, Va., also worked at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, working on money and stamp machines. Thompson was smitten by the young woman with the soft brown hair and soft eyes, whom he had first glimpsed walking with a friend up 10th Street SW. The friend introduced them. They married in 1921. They would be together almost 70 years.
"She was a pretty thing, too," he said. "We were two kids that didn't have nothing. We started from scratch . . . but we hung in there."
He has another vivid memory of that time, of walking home in knee-deep snow the night in 1922 when the Knickerbocker theater collapsed under the weight of snow on its roof, killing 98 people and injuring 133. It was one of the worst disasters in the city's history. People from all over town came to get a glimpse of the wreckage of the theater at 18th Street and Columbia Road. Thompson and his family weathered the Depression too, having moved by this time to a small house on 18th Street in South Arlington. He held on to his job--although workers were furloughed two days a month without pay. He recalls vividly the bread lines, hobos on the highways, and strangers who appeared begging at the door.
During World War II, his wife wanted to go back to work. The family needed the money, so Mulry Thompson didn't protest. It was not unusual--women had been working at the Bureau in clerical and light-duty jobs since it was founded in 1862. The couple's youngest children, then of high school age, were sent to boarding school in St. Mary's County.
Thompson's children nonetheless remember growing up in a close, Catholic family, with parents who loved to dance, a father who loved to fish and a mother who loved to cook enormous, country meals and canned everything in sight. The family returned to spend weekends on St. George Island any chance they had.
"We had a real close family," daughter Mildred Beery recalled. "We'd get together for dinners and picnics or to go out dancing. . . . Mom wasn't too strict. Daddy was more the strict one. When he said something, you did it." When Beery was in elementary school, she recalled, her father, ever the homesick country boy, took her ice fishing on the Tidal Basin.
When Ethel and Mulry Thompson retired, they returned to St. George Island to live full time in the family's "cottage," a little white house with a wide view of windy Potomac waters. They busied themselves with life on the water. Mulry Thompson made a tiny rowboat for some of his grandchildren--he has 18, 15 great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren--that they nicknamed "the Cub."
He also set about doing part-time oystering and crabbing to supplement his retirement income.
Even in the 1960s, crabs and oysters were still plentiful, Thompson recalled. He trolled for oysters, using large rakes to collect the shells from oyster beds. When he went crabbing, he sometimes searched for soft-shell crabs in grassy waters along his island's shore, dipping them out of the water with a dip net. Other times he used an old-fashioned "trot line," a length of heavy cord baited with salted eel.
But the crab and oyster population has since diminished terribly, Thompson said, and what crabs are there are often too small. There is precious little sea grass for the crabs to hide in and the water is too polluted, making it hard to see and capture the crabs with a simple net, he said.
Anyway, he gets too tired to go out in the boat anymore. But he still loves the water.
Thompson's son Donald, now 66, a home inspector in Sterling, has a vivid memory of being out on the water with his father when he was 12. "One time we were out there fishin' on a moonlit night and it was beautiful, the full moon was out, coming across the water," remembers Donald Thompson. "Dad said, 'I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight?' I said, 'They're here in this boat.' "
Five decades later, Mulry Thompson's eyesight is failing but the water still enthralls him.
"I love the water," Mulry Thompson said. "I sit right here in this chair and see the sun coming up, see how it shines on the water. I can watch the moon come up too. I can lay in my bed and see the same thing. You couldn't place it any better."
CAPTION: From his island home, Mulry Thompson can watch the sun rise over the water.
CAPTION: Mulry Thompson, 97, proudly shows off family photos on display in his St. George Island home. He is holding a military photo of a son who died recently.