Sisters Eleanor and Jean Thompson eventually settled in the South Bay, but their roadmaps to retirement took many twists and turns.
Eleanor and Jean grew up in the 1930s in the small town of Spencer, N.C., noted for its tree-lined streets and friendly atmosphere, with their brother Julian. Jean, five years younger than Eleanor, remembers feeling that her siblings thought she was “a pain in the neck,” the tagalong. But she is quick to explain that she always looked up to and loved them.
Eleanor’s life seemed interesting and exciting to Jean. Eleanor’s strong independent spirit motivated her to earn a pilot’s license, unusual for a female in the 1940s. When the opportunity arose, she joined the WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots), the first women in history to pilot military airplanes.
One summer, when Eleanor was stationed at Love Field in Texas, Jean stayed in the nearby town and became the chauffeur for the flying WASP, driving her sister and others back and forth to the field for their flights, giving her a sense of being part of the corps.
Jean followed the family tradition and attended Spencer High School and Catawba College for two years, but then showed her blossoming independence by matriculating at the University of North Carolina, the first in her family to go away to college. She became a “Government Girl” stationed in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and London.
Jean married Col. Thomas M. “Mac” Barrick. The career Army officer and World War II veteran was deployed to the Korean War five weeks after the wedding. Jean and eventually their children, Carol and Thomas McClellan Barrick Jr., moved 18 times in 23 years, living in Europe and Asia as Mac’s postings dictated.
When Mac retired in 1976, the family headed west, where Eleanor, her husband James Howard Wortz and their children had settled in Los Altos after World War II.
Separated for decades by wars, careers and marriages, the sisters reunited on the opposite side of the country – in Silicon Valley. They renewed their closeness as they shared events at the Woodland Vista Swim & Racquet Club in Los Altos, which Eleanor had organized and served as first president. The families gathered often and their children and now grandchildren became good friends instead of distant relatives.
Retirement, however, didn’t mean R&R for the Barricks, new Bay Area residents. They plunged into local activities, such as spearheading the successful citizens’ campaign to save the Heritage Orchard in Saratoga. Among her many community projects, Jean served as Green Circle facilitator for the Santa Clara County elementary schools, promoting diversity, tolerance and conflict resolution.
Encouraged to chronicle her unique experiences as one of the few women pilots in World War II, Eleanor began a book on the WASP. She found direction in the Mountain View Los Altos Adult Education Memoirs Writing Class at Hillview Community Center. In turn, as of old, it was the older sister who motivated Jean to join the class and record her interesting travels after leaving Spencer as a family history for their children and grandchildren.
Together after many decades, their roles gradually switched. It was Jean, the younger sister, who published her book first, “Tracks Out of Spencer: An Army Wife Remembers” (Xlibris Corp., 2004). It chronicles her “escape” from the small town to experience the international journeys of a military family.
Then Jean began to take the initiative for Eleanor. Although the WASP received many verbal accolades at the end of World War II, the U.S. government didn’t award the female pilots Congressional Gold Medals until 2010. Jean encouraged and enabled Eleanor to attend the local presentation in Los Gatos to accept her deserved recognition.
Experienced with the delays and minutia of finishing and publishing a book, Jean recognized that Eleanor was getting weaker and finding it more difficult to tie up her fascinating memoir. The little sister who always looked up to her older sister showed the same determination and command her sister had taught her.
Jean worked tirelessly to ensure that Eleanor would complete her book, “Fly Gals of World War II: Women Airforce Service Pilots” (Robertson Publishing, 2011), in time to enjoy the excitement and interest in the book. Eleanor died Aug. 18 at her home in Los Altos at the age of 92.
The sisters, who grew up during the Great Depression in a small southern railroad town, unused to seeing women work outside the home, showed their strong characters when the opportunities rose for each of them: fearless, determined, hardworking, successful and loyal to each other.
Los Altos resident Joan Garvin is enrolled in the Mountain View Los Altos Adult Education Memoirs Writing Class.