Left to right: Edith Charlotte Speik (Lawton), Robert Lawton Speik, Madeleine Lawton Speik, Charlotte Ann Speik, Frederick Adolph Speik, Elizabeth Jane Speik
When Robert Lawton Speik was born on June 2, 1928, in Pasadena, California, his father, Frederick, was 46 and his mother, Edith, was 44. Their only son, Frederick Adolph Jr., had tragically died in 1924 and, in their mid-40s, it was unlikely they would have another child. They were thrilled when their late-life baby turned out to be a boy. In the photograph above, little Bobby is on his mother’s lap as the entire family seems to focus on him … this often happens with a youngest child, but how much more when he is the only son!
Bobby was born into an idyllic life–although, as a child, he naturally did not understand how unusual his circumstances were. His father was wealthy and respected and his mother was equally accomplished. The family was prominent in the social pages of the Los Angeles Times. He was loved and well cared-for, educated and encouraged, and lived in a beautiful home in the lovely climate of South Pasadena, California. Home movies his father took during Bobby’s childhood in the 1920s and 1930s depict horseback riding, polo playing, days at the beach, his sisters’ graduations, and family gatherings on the beautiful lawns surrounding their house.
Flowers bloomed and the sun shone on the peaceful island Frederick Speik had created for his family on Fair Oaks Avenue, but all around them the Great Depression raged. Dr. Speik shielded his family from much of it, but pressures were building beneath the surface. Bobby was only twelve when his father suddenly and tragically died, upending the safe and comfortable world of his childhood.
Bobby attended the junior high school across the street from the big house on Fair Oaks Avenue, but by the time he entered high school his mother had sold the house and moved them to a smaller home in neighboring San Marino. His sisters had left the nest, and the Fair Oaks home was too large for just Bobby and his mother. It was wrenching to say goodbye to the Rosenbergs, but the new home had no servants’ quarters and was sufficiently compact to not need live-in help. From their San Marino address Bobby was able to attend the same high school his sisters had attended, which was probably a consideration when his mother chose the house. Also “Uncle Herb” Ahlswede (a friend of Fred Speik’s since high school days in Chicago) and his family lived at the end of the block.
Bobby excelled in school, although he recalls at least one teacher needling him for always asking “why” when given facts without–in his opinion–sufficient context.
Hot Rods and High School
During high school, Bobby discovered that he was a whiz with cars. He saved money to buy automobile parts by working summer jobs as a proud member of the International Hod Carriers and Common Laborers Union of America, and started with the frame–just a frame!–of a 1932 Ford roadster. Members of the Pasadena Roadster Club were generous in giving Bobby tips as to where he could find this part and that, and through their suggestions he managed to acquire, piece by piece, a new 1942 Mercury V8 engine, a late-model steering wheel shift, custom headers, etc., and eventually built a souped-up 1932 Ford roadster, complete with dual ignition and dual exhaust, from junkyard parts. He recalls that it took him about six months to obtain all the parts and construct the car himself. Such was his determination that he took the streetcar when sister Charlotte wouldn’t drive him, and carried heavy parts home on the streetcar. He ended up with a pretty sweet little race car. Bobby drove it at 121.8 mph at El Mirage Dry Lake at the tender age of sixteen, clocked second fastest in its class by Cal Tech students. He proudly drove this car as a high school Senior and as a college Freshman, but when he met Margaret Thompson his “hot rod” days were numbered. Once they got serious about each other, Bobby’s future wife insisted that he turn it into a proper car–with windows that rolled up, and doors that locked when the car was parked! Bobby’s mother seconded this idea (she was not a fan of his racing prowess), so he added a roof, windows, etc., and ended up with a car rather like this one photographed at a car show in Bend–but with a classy, canvas, fold-down top, and a professional paint job in “Cadillac dark metallic gray.”
Edith Speik objected to Bobby’s car racing, but she may have inadvertently inspired it herself … he recalls an exciting day in the late 1930s on the Pacific Coast Highway, headed to Balboa Island from South Pasadena, when his mother exclaimed: “KIDS, THIS AN HISTORIC MOMENT! I HAVE THE CADILLAC UP TO A MILE A MINUTE!”
When Bobby Met Tommie …
Bobby met Margaret Ardell “Tommie” Thompson in 1946 at the Freshman Mixer at Pomona College. She walked up to him and demanded to know why he was staring at her. “Because,” he said simply, “I think you look like Lauren Bacall.” What woman could resist a line like that?
Bob was one of only seventeen high school boys admitted to that freshman class–the rolls were filled that year with older service members returning from World War II. His mother had gently discouraged him from becoming a physician like his dad, so Bob majored in Medieval History. He married Tommie shortly after he graduated, in September of 1950.
More photographs of their beautiful wedding can be seen by clicking here: Speik-Thompson Wedding Album
The newlyweds honeymooned at “Moy Mell” — Gaelic for “Land of Honey” — on the shores of Lake Michigan. This was the summer home of long-time friends of the Thompsons, and in fact Tommie’s parents had honeymooned there as well. Then they took a train from St. Louis to New York City to stay with relatives for a few weeks and plan their next adventure: a sojourn in France and England to work and explore. The young couple placed an ad in the London Times offering to work in exchange for board and room. They had been warned that English food was terrible, so they “helpfully” included the information that they weren’t picky about food. Oddly, no one answered their advertisement…!
While waiting (in vain) for offers of European work and housing to materialize, the Speiks moved into a 5th-floor walk-up apartment in the Lower East Side. It took an hour to get downtown on the subway, but Tommie secured a job at B. Altman, the legendary department store on Fifth Avenue, selling “cruise wear”–a position deemed suitable for a California girl. Meanwhile, Bob pored over the Help Wanted ads trying to find something appropriate for a guy with a degree in Medieval History. In stepped “Uncle Ernie” Quantrell, a moneyed New Yorker who had been a family friend since he and Fred Speik went to college together. Uncle Ernie’s lawyer was able to break the Speiks’ lease and get them into a nice basement apartment in a brownstone on West 76th Street, just a block from the river. Uncle Ernie also helped Bob secure a position in the Rare Books Reading Section at the main branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue.
Life took another turn when Bob’s mother expressed nervousness about the possibility that he would be drafted into the Korean War. About that time, Bob picked up a US Army booklet for 40¢ and read it on the subway. It made Officer Candidate School look so easy that Bob decided to try it. Alas, the reality of boot camp proved to be a rude awakening. His letters, filled with outrage and despair, convinced his loved ones that he was about to drop out in disgrace–but he managed to survive, and even distinguish himself. By the age of 24 he was stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky, as a First Lieutenant and Armored Company Commander. And back in New York, Sarah Lawton Speik was born, making him a father as well. When he got the phone call, he didn’t have a notepad, and in all the excitement he thought he heard “twelve pounds, six ounces” instead of “six pounds, twelve ounces.” He was delighted when he shared the news; everyone he told was amazed and impressed.
Tommie and Sarah eventually joined Bob in Fort Knox, where he was a Company Commander – Station Complement, then a Summary Court Martial Officer for the Tri State Apprehension District of Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio (normally a major’s position).
Bob was not interested in a military career. He had other mountains to climb–literally and figuratively. By July of 1955, when their son Frederick Thompson Speik was born, Bob and Tommie were settled in Orange County and planning new adventures. Together they built a beautiful ranch-style home in Fullerton, California: 3030 Anacapa Place. The Speiks designed the house, the garage, and the grounds and hired contractors to execute their vision. Katherine Thompson Speik joined the family in 1959, and this is the home where Bob and Tommie’s three children grew up.
Bob’s interest in history and art led him to contribute to the area’s history and aesthetic through–what else?–real estate. Southern California was booming and there were plenty of opportunities for a bright and personable man with leadership skills. Bob began a new career in commercial mortgage banking. By the mid-1980’s Bob was Senior Real Estate Lending Officer and Director of Financial Fraud Investigations for the FDIC. He managed a staff of 17 men and women responsible for the Savings and Loan Financial Fraud Investigations on the entire West Coast of the USA, San Diego to Alaska. But his real passions were mountaineering and sailing.
The Mountains, the Sea, and Points Between
Bob took the Sierra Club’s Basic Mountaineering Training Course in 1972, but it was not until 1976 that he joined the Club, took the Leadership Training Course, and plunged into chapter activity. Later in life, he said that during the 1970s he evolved from car camper to backpacker to full-fledged mountaineer. He became an assistant leader in the Basic Mountaineering Training Committee (BMTC) in the late ’70s, and in 1979 became its Treasurer. In 1982 he became Chair of the BMTC, a position he held through 1984. During his service he revamped committee bookkeeping procedures and assisted in rewriting committee policies, procedures and staff handbooks. He presided over establishment of the new Advanced Mountaineering Training Program and was actively engaged in leading trips for the chapter’s hiking and climbing sections. Often, Tommy was right there with him.
In 1985 the Los Angeles Times sent a reporter and photographer on one of Bob’s weekend training courses and put out a three-page spread, with photos, called “Room at the Top: Sierra Club Leads the Way to Life’s Peaks.” Bob was the director of the program and is featured prominently in the article as he leads a group of beginners out to Joshua Tree National Park and shows them the ropes–literally.
Bob’s leadership ability and love of the outdoors made him a “natural” for passing his mountaineering skills on to others, and he became a recognized expert in this field. His website, traditionalmountaineering.org, is still an important resource for anyone seeking information on this topic–and indeed, is the first place Google sends you when you search for it.
Sailor, 1934 … Captain , 1994
But long before the mountains called him, Bob’s first love was the sea. He had been interested in sailing ever since his childhood summers on Balboa Island. He even had the outfit to prove it (see above). But financial success in his adult years enabled him to achieve the “real deal” and captain his own vessel out of Newport Beach: Outrageous.
Retirement in the 1990s brought even more opportunities for adventure. Bob and Tommie first lived near the water (and Outrageous) on Balboa Island, but eventually sold their home and headed out in a motor home. The idea was to see the entire country. They got as far as Bend, Oregon and never completed their trip! They fell in love with Bend for the fly fishing and mountaineering, stopped there, and bought a home. Tommie became the secretary of the 60-person fly-fishing club, and in 2001 was Central Oregon’s Flyfisher of the Year. Bob taught Traditional Mountaineering at the local community college and formed a Mountaineering Club with over 450 adult members.
Margaret Ardell “Tommie” Thompson Speik passed in 2017 in Bend, Oregon, at the age of 89, after a long life filled with travel, outdoors adventures, family and fulfillment. Bob has continued to live in their home in Bend with “Mr. Mulligan,” their West Highland white terrier. He remains active, taking care of the landscaping and walking Mr. Mulligan, and busies himself indoors with family history projects. His dedication to organizing and memorializing his family’s stories and voluminous documentation–photographs, letters, and genealogical research done originally by his wife–have made this blog possible.
Below are some memoirs in Bob’s own words:
CLASS OF 1950 LOOKBOOK ENTRY (from 2002)
Robert Speik (50) and Margaret Thompson (Speik) (49)
I was one of seventeen high school boys admitted to the freshman class in 1946 with all of the older returning servicemen. I met Margaret (Tommie) Thompson (Class of 49) at the first freshman class mixer. I was very impressed; we married after my graduation. My major in Medieval History led to a tour as an Army Officer during the Korean Conflict and a career in Commercial Mortgage Banking and with the FDIC. We have three successful University of California liberal arts children and five fine grandchildren. Stopping our retirement travels in Bend, Oregon and using expertise gained as former Chair of the Mountaineering Training Committee of the L.A. Chapter of the Sierra Club, I introduced in 1995, a 30-hour course, “Wilderness Mountaineering” at Central Oregon Community College. I have since established eight new courses for their Wilderness Studies program. I am Co-founder and current President of Cascades Mountaineers Alpine Climbing Club in Bend and a volunteer Wilderness Ranger making three- to five-day solo patrols in the Cascades’ Three Sisters Wilderness. I am a frequent contributor to the American Alpine Club’s series “Accidents in North American Mountaineering”. Tommie and I were named 1998 Flyfishers of the Year, and I am now the Conservation Chairman (Tommie is Secretary) of the national award-winning club, Central Oregon Flyfishers. Thanks in part to our Pomona education, we are productive, healthy and happy as we near our 50th wedding anniversary in this destination resort community on the dry side of the Oregon Cascades. Nearing 75, I am climbing just a little slower but just as high!
From a 2020 email:
“I was unable to find a job I was trained for at College. Then a Friend of the Family suggested I try Real Estate (“because you can talk a lot Bob – and you don’t have to know too much.”)
I was hired by Coldwell Banker and Company, a top flight Real Estate Firm. I became the Charter President of Orange County Mortgage Banker’s Association
Tommie and I designed and built with subcontractors, a large country home with 5 horses and two motorcycles, for the five of us in Sunny Hills, Fullerton, eventually sold it and remodeled a classic Balboa Island home, sold it and retired to Bend Oregon for hiking, climbing, fly fishing and teaching Traditional Mountaineering at Central Oregon Community College and in the community.
Over the years, Tommie and I prospered and I retired from a Position as Manager of the West Coast Regional Real Estate Financial Fraud Office of the FDIC, covering from San Diego to Alaska with 17 trained and experienced Investigators under my wing.”