Circle of life: Bud Thompson, a local celebrity in Warner, reflects on his 97 years

  • Bud Thompson holds his wife, Nancy, in their Warner home on Thursday in front of one of their favorite paintings of the Southwest. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Bud Thompson and his wife Nancy in their Warner home. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 2/22/2020 10:32:57 PM

Before the ground was frozen, 97-year-old Bud Thompson was out in the field every day behind the Indian Museum in Warner with a shovel and a pickaxe, prying rocks out of the soil.

Each small rock he was able to hoist up was placed carefully in a crack in a stone wall that guarded the arboretum, a collection of trees – bristlecone pine, paperbark maple and native elm, along with more than 85 other species – he had planted there over decades.

His wife, Nancy, sat on a golf cart nearby, looking out the sugar maples and oaks that were beginning to turn color. To him, those were moments of complete bliss. He felt close to God.

As he nears his 98th birthday in April, Thompson, who is not only the beloved museum’s founder but now the honorary oldest person in Warner, has been reflecting on his legacy, which has been largely about preservation and service, to the Earth and to the people in his community.

Thompson has always been full of energy for his work, whether it was hosting pow-wows on his property and inviting native people from around the country or teaching thousands of children’s groups about native plants and animals.

In the last few months, his physical health has taken a toll. He now needs his walker or cane to get around. He said he is struggling with his memory, too. He believes he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

What is heightened for him now are the emotional ties he says he’d made over the years. Valuing his time more than ever, Thompson, a World War II veteran, has been making an effort to reach out to people in his life and thank them for the ways they’ve helped him.

“I can’t tell you the number of wonderful people that have been a part of my life,” he said. “A man doesn’t get luckier than I have.”

His life

Thompson’s commitment to service to the Earth began 90 years ago, when Grand Chief Sachem Silverstar visited Thompson’s second-grade class and gave the children a message that would define Thompson’s life.

Chief Silverstar asked the children to sit in a circle, the circle being a sacred Indigenous symbol for the interconnectedness of all of life.

“Each of you,” the chief told the children, “has been given a talent, and each of you must use that talent to make the world a better place.”

He told them that he hoped to hear, someday, what each child had been given to this purpose

The land

Thompson’s true calling for preservation came when he arrived in New Hampshire. He was fascinated by the Shaker way of life and started to collect Shaker artifacts that the Shakers sold at the antique shop in the Schoolhouse in Canterbury.

In the late 1950s he found that the Shaker elders, who were aging quickly, could no longer give tours of the village. He volunteered to give tours for them and moved into the village itself.

When they considered selling the land where the village was, he pleaded with them to consider making the village into a museum. He took the sisters to places like Shelburne Museum and Old Sturbridge Village to explain his idea, and they eventually saw a restoration as a means to transmit many of their values to the world.

He became the curator of that museum, caring for the Shakers in their old age. When the last Shaker eldress, Bertha Linsday, passed away in 1990, she asked Thompson to scatter her ashes on the village property.

Through his home, he has Shaker baskets and furniture displayed to pay tribute to the Shakers. He says he “never worked for better people.”

He and Nancy are starting to downsize now, and he gave some of his original Shaker furniture to his sons.

One thing that will remain is the plaque he displays proudly in the entryway to his home for his 30 years of stewardship.

“In your hands, Shaker Village has become ‘a museum with a voice,’ ” it reads. “Your gift for interpreting the Shaker way of life, born of three decades of friendship, has touched the lives of many thousands. You came to Canterbury looking for music ... you have left your own music here as a gift to all who visit Shaker Village.”

Warner

In the early 1990s, Thompson and Nancy opened the Indian Museum in Warner. They had a dream of sharing the native teachings of unity and care for the Earth they had grown to love and live by.

When Thompson came to Warner, the barn where the museum is now had a roof filled with holes, where pigeons had made their homes. The land was littered with coils of barbed wire, a broken manure spreader, an old safe minus its door, a refrigerator, lengths of rope, smashed glass and bald tires.

He filled the museum with artifacts from his travels over the years – colorful beaded moccasins, feathered headdresses and long, wooden canoes.

Nancy created the idea for the museum’s layout – the artifacts are displayed in a circular pattern, a “circle of life.” There is no beginning and no end.

When he talks about his wife now, Thompson cries with gratitude.

“She’s had ideas, many times bigger and better than mine,” he said. “She’s been a fantastic partner. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without her input. She’s been a God help to me.”

Thompson said after his first marriage failed, he never dreamed he’d find such a true love in his life.

The Thompsons dedicated their lives to the museum. When the museum first opened, they had one phone line for the museum and the house.

They created the Medicine Woods, where over 100 native plants that Native Americans historically used for food, medicine and shelter are planted.

Gratitude

Although the Thompsons are limited in their mobility now, they get visitors often, many of them family. A couple of weeks ago, the new director of Canterbury Shaker Village came to pay him a visit.

They have nurses who visit regularly and receive assistance from Meals on Wheels.

Andy Bullock, the museum’s executive director, has become his best friend and visits him daily, along with taking him and Nancy to their favorite restaurant, Foot Hills of Warner.

Thompson is a local celebrity in Warner. An old photo of him in his troubadour costume is hanging on the wall near the bar at The Foot Hills. Everyone is eager to chat with Thompson and hear about his life and accomplishments.

However, Thompson’s interest has never been about talking about himself. He’d rather learn about others.

“If he doesn’t know them, or if he doesn’t remember their names, he’ll say, ‘Tell me about you. I want to know about you,’ ” Bullock said.

Thompson said he owes all of his success to others.

“It’s been a wonderful life. I loved every bit of it. I think there’s gotta be a God in heaven. I mean it. I mean it. All my life, the doors open up and good people have come into my life and made a difference. So what can I say? I’m totally in gratitude.”

He said he’s especially grateful to Bullock, who he is leaving in charge of the museum and who he knows will take care of it.

Bullock said he was 18 when they met. Thompson developed a connection with Bullock’s father, who was of Wampanoag ancestry and ran shops selling native artifacts.

Even if he can’t make it into the museum every day, Bullock takes them on rides in the museum parking lot to take a look at how things are going, and to see how various plants are growing. On nice days, Bullock will drive them out to the arboretum in the museum golf cart, and they sit out on the Bud and Nancy memorial bench.

Bullock has a theory about Thompson.

“He always says he’s had this storybook life, because it’s been so perfect, that no one would believe because he kind of doesn’t believe it. He keeps talking about coincidence and how it’s got to be more than just coincidence when all these things just kind of fall into place,” Bullock said.

“But it’s that theory of you know, the harder you work the luckier you get. Creating potential in people I think is really what he does, and he doesn’t know it,” Bullock said.

Next chapter

There’s a painting of a dark silhouette on a horse riding in a canyon at sunset above the mantle in the living room where Bud and Nancy like to sit.

Bud said he can’t quite remember where in the Southwest the painting is depicting.

“It’s the Alzheimer’s,” he said. “It makes everything vague.”

He and Nancy purchased it from an Indigenous artist who came to visit the museum years ago. They discovered they had visited the exact spot depicted in the painting, and they had to have it.

Thompson said although he can’t remember where that spot is, he remembers what it makes him feel. Gratitude, like the rest of his home makes him feel.

He doesn’t feel like he’s done serving his land yet.

“I’ve still got a few more trees that I’d still like to plant. I hope I get another summer here,” he said, looking out his window at the melting snow on a late February day. “I don’t have much time to do too many more things.”

“Andy knows how to follow through and he’ll help me with everything that goes on,” he added. “I know that this will all continue. I have no doubt.”




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