Every story has a beginning. Bird Watcher’s Digest’s story begins with a woman named Pat Murphy.
Pat was an experienced birder and a nature columnist for the Marietta Times newspaper. She eventually served as Bird Watcher’s Digest’s associate editor and as a columnist, and she was the leader of the local women’s birding club, the Betsey Birders. The Betsey Birders were affiliated with the historic Betsey Mills Club in Marietta, Ohio, which offered support to women in the Mid-Ohio Valley, and was founded in the 1898 as The Girls’ Monday Club by—you guessed it—a community-minded woman named Betsey Mills.
In 1971, Bill Thompson Jr., his wife, Elsa Ekenstierna Thompson, and their three young children moved from Pella, Iowa, to Marietta, Ohio, when Bill accepted a leadership role at Marietta College. Bill had grown up in this historic small town where the Ohio and Muskingum rivers converge. His mom and aunt were retired, having sold their family dairy farm, and they were no doubt thrilled to have Bill Jr. living in Marietta once again, this time with his beautiful young family.
As a journalist, Bill was a true newspaper man, and Elsa was a well-educated woman of information. They read each issue of the local newspaper, the Marietta Times, from front to back, as most folks did back then. Bill and especially Elsa enjoyed Pat Murphy’s regular column, “Birds I View,” which inspired Elsa to try bird watching. She thought it would be a great way to meet people—the community where her husband had spent most of his growing-up years. Pat’s column made birding sound fun and interesting, so Elsa joined the Betsey Birders and became the first person in the Thompson family to become a bird watcher.
Soon Bill Jr., Bill III, and Andy began birding as well, and BT3 credits Pat Murphy as his first birding mentor. He used to tell some hilarious stories about her, a no-nonsense woman with a lot of spunk and birding wisdom. The Thompson family’s love of birding—Elsa’s and BT3’s in particular—began with Pat Murphy and the Betsey Birders. That group introduced young Billy to field guides, bird feeders, bird identification, binoculars, and spotting scopes. But most importantly, they allowed this bright-eyed, gangly, talkative little boy to tag along on their outings, enabling him to soak up the birds and birding knowledge like a sponge. A few years later, the Thompsons’ growing passion for birding led them to start Bird Watcher’s Digest, which is a story all its own. Today’s story, however, explains how it all began, and why it has now come full circle for me, nearly 50 years later.
As I reluctantly took the helm at Bird Watcher’s Digest following the death of Bill Thompson, III, in early 2019, I knew about the origins of BWD and how the Thompsons had begun bird watching. I had heard about Pat Murphy and the Betsey Birders. Having worked remotely for BWD since 2010, I had spent months each year in Marietta over the previous decade, a town I had come to adore. Eventually I moved to Whipple, Ohio, to be with Bill, nearly next door to his wildlife preserve, Indigo Hill, so we could remain close to Julie Zickefoose and their kids. After Bill died, I moved from rural Whipple to the heart of Marietta’s historic district on Third Street.
This new location would be a much better lifestyle fit for me than rural Whipple had been, although I had grown to enjoy living in the country with Bill, who was devoted to country living. Before he died, I promised Bill I would help his family care for his mother, Elsa, now 85, after he was gone, so the house I bought sits within a stone’s throw of the spot where Bill grew up, and where the Thompsons had lived since 1971. Sadly, just two months later, the Thompson family home was destroyed in a tragic fire that also took Elsa’s life. I couldn’t look after Elsa, but my Third Street house is also close to BWD’s office, and I knew the change in location would help me in my grieving process. In a strange way, I hoped it would help me remain close to Bill and Elsa, too.
Now a fully-fledged Marietta resident, I attended a small, live music event in Marietta on a cold Friday night, on February 6, 2020. I had recently returned from a long business/birding trip, was recovering from pneumonia, and really didn’t feel much like being out socially on a Friday night, or on any night for that matter. I have always loved live music, and I’m quite a social person. But the previous year of illness, grief, and loss had changed me. I’d lost all desire for social gatherings and wondered if I would ever be the same again. I was figuring out who I was apart from Bill, as BWD’s new leader, and as a younger widowed woman in a town where I knew very few people. Even though Bill had been gone ten months, it still felt strange to be in social situations by myself. But I knew that if I ventured out that night, I’d enjoy the music. Music was something that had bonded Bill and me, and I missed going to hear local musicians with him in Marietta. A friend’s band was playing—a friend who had often come to see Bill and me play music—so I reluctantly followed my heart and headed downtown to hear the band. I’m so glad I did.
That night I met a man named Will McGlynn who was born and raised in Marietta, but he had lived in Columbus for the past twenty years. He was in town visiting his mother that weekend, and like me, he had friends playing in the band. We connected immediately and began a conversation that night that lasted for hours. I guess you could say that our conversation has now lasted more than eight months, as we’ve been dating ever since! Meeting Will so effortlessly and unexpectedly that night was the best thing that has happened to me in this crazy year of COVID-19 chaos. But what I didn’t know then was that his Marietta family has a meaningful connection with Bird Watcher’s Digest, which is yet another remarkable chapter in this story.
As people do when they’re getting to know one another, we talked for countless hours in the coming weeks about our families, lives, and personal histories. Through our conversations I learned that Pat Murphy had been a close friend of Will’s grandmother, Eleanor Thomas. They were both “Betsey Birders,” and Will remembers Pat being at his grandmother’s house quite often when he was young. Eleanor also had a great love of birds and birding, and Will knew that Pat and Eleanor had both been part of the Betsey Birders group even before Elsa had joined. After a bit of research, I also learned that Joe Thomas, Will’s grandfather, had been one of the original investors in Bird Watcher’s Digest and a good friend of Bill Thompson Jr.’s. Those early supporters helped BWD transition from a dream to a reality in 1978, and Will’s grandparents were part of it all, along with other community members. Bill Jr. and Elsa were such magnetic people with many friends, all of whom loved Marietta and the Thompson family. It makes me happy to think of this group of Mariettans joining forces to help start this small business that has now lasted 43 years—a business I am honored to serve.
Several months ago, Will’s mother, Katie McGlynn, found one of Pat Murphy’s “Birds I View” articles that her late mother, Eleanor, had saved. Carefully cut from the Marietta Times, yellowed with age, and lovingly preserved, the article tells of a boating trip with the Betsey Birders in fall during the early 1970s. Pat shares news of their boating adventure, recounts the many birds they saw, and talks about the captain of their boat that day—Joe Thomas. It’s likely that the Betsey Birder boating excursion with Will’s grandfather at the helm included Pat Murphy, Eleanor Thomas, Elsa Thompson, and maybe even a young Bill Thompson III.
So, as the Ohio and Muskingum have converged in this little river town, so my own life has converged here with a handful of Mariettans who have changed the course of my life. Of course, I’m only a small character in a much bigger story. Although I knew Bill and Elsa and loved them dearly, I didn’t grow up here. I never had the pleasure of meeting Pat Murphy, Will’s grandparents, or any of the folks who helped give BWD its start. But, as I humbly continue onward and upward with Bird Watcher’s Digest, I am committed to honoring not only its past, but its future as well. I understand the importance of its history, its roots, and its legacy. BWD now lives in my heart and soul, as does Marietta, Ohio. I’m proud to call both my home.
There’s another big chapter of this story that I’ll share at another time, but in recent years I’ve learned that my own Clark family actually has a deep, historic connection to Marietta as well! This story is still unfolding, but it is just as remarkable as the one I’ve shared today. I’ll have more to share about that very soon!
All of these things have led me to this truth: I have no doubt that I was meant to find my way to this little-known, small Americana town. Every road, and every twist and turn in my life has led me to this exact place and time. I’m awestruck, humbled, and comforted by this.
Will McGlynn goes birding with me every chance he gets, and I promise you, I’m not coercing him! We spent last weekend birding at Magee Marsh on Lake Erie, and he absolutely loved it. I hope we’ll be enjoying birding and life together for a long time to come.
Bill Thompson, III, Elsa Thompson, and Bill Thompson Jr. are all buried at Indigo Hill atop beautiful Scott’s Ridge, the place Bill loved most in the world. It’s the place where Bill and Julie sparked my love of birds, nature, music, and Marietta more than 12 years ago. They will always be my family. Julie is still home at Indigo Hill, and she is thriving. She continues to write and paint from this magical place, inspiring the entire world with her words and art.
I sure wish BT3 was still around so I could talk to him about all of this, and ask him whether or not he was on the boat that day with Pat, Eleanor, Elsa, and Joe back in the early ‘70s.
But something tells me Bill is still around, all right. And somehow, from the great beyond, he’s bringing it all full circle.
About the Author
Wendy Clark is the president and publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, a career communications specialist, and an avid birder. She has three children and two grandchildren, and lives in Marietta, Ohio.