Ron and Gail Thompson stand steadfast in faith after disaster claims their home, neighbors
By Jean Parietti
The ad sounded promising: “Little slice of heaven on earth, in Oso by the river.” So Ron and Gail Thompson drove out from Arlington to take a look.
Seven minutes after setting foot on the five-acre property on Steelhead Drive, the Thompsons were hooked. “We knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that’s where the Lord wanted us,” Gail said.
Purchased in 2003, the property along the North Fork Stillaguamish River became the couple’s “little paradise.” Ron tinkered in his large workshop. He and Gail had Friday date nights beside the fire pit, accompanied by “praise and worship” music. Their five daughters and extended family enjoyed gatherings and campouts at “the river.”
The rural neighborhood of 27 homes was just as close-knit. Neighbors socialized and helped each other. Ron plowed their driveways in the winter and tended a big garden in summer so he and Gail could share its bounty. “It was more than just a neighborhood,” Ron said. “It was like a family.”
Ron and Gail had paid off the property so they could do more to help others. They envisioned hosting retreats there someday. “Our mission was that everybody would know that all we had belonged to the Lord,” Gail said.
Then, on a sunny March Saturday, shortly after the Thompsons left to go shopping, the unimaginable happened. A wa-ter-saturated hillside collapsed, sending a wall of mud across the river at freeway speed. It crashed into Steelhead Drive, obliterating the neighborhood and leaving few survivors.
The Thompsons’ paradise was gone, and their hearts grieved the loss of so many friends. But the Oso mudslide couldn’t crush the couple’s hope and trust in God.
Love at first sight
Ron didn’t grow up in a churchgoing family, but he remembers attending vacation Bible school with a friend as a youngster. “They had a little store next door with candy in it, and they fed us lunch. What a better way to live?” Ron recalled, laughing. But a seed was planted: “I must have been listening without realizing that I was absorbing it, and it stayed with me.”
It wasn’t until several years later, lying in his bunk on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, that Ron began talking with God. Even with 1,500 people on board, “it was so darn lonely,” he said. “That’s when I think I really learned you have to talk to him. Things just don’t happen, you’ve got to ask for them. You’ve got to keep a conversation up.”
Ron was discharged from the Navy in December 1969 and met Gail not long afterward. “It was just like it was love at first sight,” she said. They were engaged in July 1970 and married that September at Immaculate Conception Church in Arlington. During the early years, they lived in Arlington and then in Toledo, Lewis County.
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Finding the Lord
It was in Toledo that Gail found the Lord. Although baptized and raised a Catholic, “I had no relationship with God,” Gail said. “I knew the name Jesus, but I didn’t know him in a personal way.”
Then Gail was invited to the neighborhood women’s Bible study group. She didn’t even own a Bible, but the women gave her one. “They told me they were studying in Luke, so I spent all night reading Matthew, Mark and Luke so I could catch up,” Gail said.
Immersed in the story of Jesus, Gail did a 180-degree turn: “I started my adventure of, ‘Who is this God?’” Her Bible group friends called her “the little evangelist. They couldn’t keep me quiet,” she said, laughing.
After the family moved back to Arlington, Gail was invited to a Life in the Spirit seminar at Immaculate Conception. “Ron came with me and new life began for us,” she said. A weekly prayer group helped their spiritual life grow.
Ron was always helping out at church, whether it was mowing the lawn or doing the dishes at parish potlucks. “That’s where I met everybody, because I was a giver,” he said. Finally a parishioner asked Ron if he was Catholic, and then if he wanted to be baptized. “Nobody asked me before,” Ron said. So he joined the parish’s first Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults class and was baptized in 1985.
Notebooks and red pens
Around their 10th wedding anniversary, Ron and Gail went on a Marriage Encounter retreat. It awakened them to the sacredness of their marriage and the importance of Christ in their relationship. They began to see themselves as one.
“It was from there that we committed, before we did something, we would ask each other,” Gail said. They also make sure to ask God. “As we always say, ‘Lord, you open and shut our doors,’” Gail said. “‘If it’s meant to be, then open the door. If it’s not, then not.’ I just want him to be Lord over our lives and over our circumstances.”
Gail is serious about living her gifts of hospitality, faith and evangelization, gifts confirmed during an Advent retreat at Immaculate Conception, where she has been parish secretary for 29 years. “My whole message is to inspire and encourage and to engage people in faith,” Gail said.
Every morning, she spends two or three hours reading her Bible, reflecting and writing in her journal — her “talk with God.” Lost in the slide were about 100 notebooks with Gail’s reflections, written in the red ink that reminds her of the Holy Spirit.
The Thompsons are holding the last sign Ron made in his workshop; it was given to their daughter before the disaster. Photo: Jean Parietti. View more photos.
Journals and red pens were among the things their granddaughter, Kelly, included on a list of essentials Ron and Gail would need immediately after the slide.
Ron and the hillside above the Stillaguamish have a history of near-misses. In the mid-1960s, while living in Everett, two flat tires kept him from being on the riverbank when a slide came down, covering the spot where he was planning to fish. In 2006, after he and Gail had moved to Steelhead Drive, Ron was walking along the beach just an hour or so before a slide covered the area.
This time, Ron, Gail and Gail’s elderly mother, Mary Jira, had left the house perhaps 20 minutes before the massive March 22 slide hit. The trio had gone shopping to buy food for the parish youth who were coming to the house the next day for a work party. A group of about 20 was expected for the event, originally planned for Saturday — the day of the mudslide — but rescheduled just the day before.
Gail and her mother almost didn’t make the trip. But when her mother started feeling better that morning, Ron suggested getting out of the house would be good for her. “As soon as he said that,” Gail recalled, “I heard, ‘You go.’ I said, ‘I’m supposed to go.’ I heard that loud and clear.”
Mystery of life
The slide killed at least 43 people, including about two-thirds of Steelhead Drive’s residents. Why some died and others lived is a mystery of life, Gail said: “We come into this world on the day that’s allotted for us. And the day we leave, we can’t pick that. It’s what we do with the days from the time we are born until we return to the Lord that are important.”
She and Ron are sustained by their shared faith that life is stronger than death. “To be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord,” Gail said. “Our belief is that they’re there now, praying for us because we’re the ones that are needing it.”
They’re inspired by the faith of those who lost loved ones and awed by the hard work of so many volunteers and the donations that have poured in. “I see how God is in this and how he’s working it for good,” Gail said. “I think this has shown the world our faith,” Ron said. “For us, this is faith in action.”
One last date night
On the Friday that would be their last on Steelhead Drive, Ron and Gail dined on stuffed mushrooms and breaded green beans, sipped a glass of wine and sat by the fire pit until darkness fell.
“It was a wonderful last evening,” Gail said. “The snow was all over the mountains. The sky was so blue; the sun was out. It was just like God really blessed our last day above and beyond what I could think or imagine.”
Ron and Gail are steadfast in their faith as they seek their next slice of paradise on earth. God knows their new address, as they always say.
“We’re fine, because the Lord is everything for us,” Gail said. “We know who we are, where we’re going and how we’re going to get there in him. We want to be signs of love and sources of joy and beacons of hope for everyone.”
Debris field: 1 square mile, up to 75 feet deep
Human toll: 43 people killed, 14 injured and/or rescued (one later died)
Property damage: 49 homes and structures destroyed, a mile of State Route 530 impassable for over two months
Donations: Over $8 million, including more than $600,000 given to Catholic Community Services and Immaculate Conception Parish in Arlington
Sources: Snohomish County, Everett Herald, CCS, Immaculate Conception
In the July/August Northwest Catholic radio program, Immaculate Conception Church in Arlington with pastor Father Tim Sauer talks about the Oso mudslide recovery efforts (15 minutes into the show).
NORTHWEST CATHOLIC- July/August 2014