Matriarch of music in SLO dies at 98

Dorothy Hoover Thomson, the last known survivor of Pancho Villa’s 1916 raid on Columbus, N.M., died Sunday at the Garden House care facility in Morro Bay. She was 98.

For more than 80 years, she taught music to hundreds of piano students in San Luis Obispo.

Thomson was also a ubiquitous accompanist for theater productions, music performances, school choirs, soloists, weddings, church services and fashion shows. She was a part-time organist at several San Luis Obispo churches.

In addition, she played piano for Lillian Warneke’s Bel Canto Singers, was on the founding board of the first Community Concerts Association and was part of the pioneering group that started raising funds in the 1960s for what became the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly.

According to nephew-in-law Larry Welborn, Thomson was born Aug. 11, 1912, in Columbus, N.M., to Iva and W.C. Hoover, who was a wealthy lawyer, banker and mayor. He also owned the Hoover Hotel, which still stands as a historic landmark in the border town.

“Dorothy was 4 years old,” Welborn said, “when Mexican revolutionary war general Pancho Villa and his Villistas raided the town shortly before dawn, the only time a foreign army attacked the United States on U.S. soil between the War of 1812 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

“Villa’s raiders killed 18 Americans, mostly civilians, in the unprovoked attack on Columbus, including one pregnant woman who was gunned down as she tried to get into the Hoover Hotel,” he added.

Thomson and her siblings escaped injury by hiding under a bed in the two-story adobe hotel while violence raged outside.

“In fact, some of the fiercest fighting during the raid took place on the street directly in front of the hotel, where American troops set up a machine gun to protect Columbus citizens who took refuge inside the adobe walls,” Welborn told The Tribune.

Soon after, the family — at Iva’s insistence — moved to Albuquerque, where W.C. Hoover started an automobile dealership. There, his daughter was introduced to the piano at the age of 8.

According to Welborn, who is a reporter with the Orange County Register, the Hoovers moved to San Luis Obispo in 1926, drawn by the climate and the reputation of the engineering department of Cal Poly.

Both sons — Chris and David Hoover — earned degrees in aeronautical engineering at Cal Poly and together built the San Luis Obispo Airport in the later 1930s.

Dorothy met and married Earl Thomson, and the couple traveled the world in their early life together. They lived in Chicago; Kansas City; Fairbanks, Alaska; and Saudi Arabia, where Earl Thomson was the personal pilot for King Saud.

During their two years in Jeddah during the 1950s, Dorothy Thomson gave piano lessons to some of the king’s 56 children, as well as children of the future king, King Faisal. Her husband later became the personal pilot for Alex Madonna, who once described Dorothy as “the most elegant lady I’ve ever met.”

When Earl Thomson died suddenly in 1964, Welborn said, Dorothy settled on Flora Street in San Luis Obispo. She never remarried.

Over the next 45 years, she was devoted to music and her students, who filed in and out of her home with sheet music for Beethoven, Bach and Mozart tucked under their arms. “Lessons took place on a piano bench in front of a golden walnut spinet piano in the front room that was her studio,” Welborn said, “with only a few of her students earning the privilege of playing on her prized Steinway grand.”

Thomson continued to perform and give lessons well into her 90s, reluctantly retiring only recently.

Known for giving a home to a succession of dogs and cats, the Thomsons did not have any children.

Dorothy Thomson is survived by her brother David Hoover, 94, of Portland, Ore.; nieces, Cathy Silva of San Luis Obispo, and Ann Welborn of Chino Hills; a nephew, Michael Hoover of Palm Springs; five grand nieces and nephews; and one great-grand nephew.

Services are pending and are being handled by Reis Family Mortuary.