Cruising into retirement: Evi Thompson reflects on long career as the consummate travel agent

Evi Thompson of Bemidji is retiring from a travel agent career that has taken her to seven continents and 132 countries.

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Evi and Jeff Thompson led a Cruise Masters trip to India in 2011 and posted in front of the Taj Mahal, "the greatest monument of love ever built," Evi said.
Courtesy / Evi Thompson

BEMIDJI — Evi Thompson was 18 years old when she took her first airline flight. She was a newlywed, flying from her native Germany to meet her American husband in New York City. She never left her seat, didn’t know it was OK to use the bathroom or eat the meal that was offered on the eight-hour flight.

To make things worse, when she got to JFK Airport, her husband was nowhere to be found. Jeff Thompson was having some trouble with his discharge papers from the U.S. Army, and couldn’t get there on time. Four hours later, after Evi sat behind the Swiss Air counter, the couple was finally reunited.

It’s a wonder Evi ever wanted to get back on an airplane. Forty-seven years later, she’s retiring from a travel agent career that has taken her to seven continents and 132 countries. Suffice it to say, air travel is no longer a problem for her.

On Jan. 1, Evi sold her business, Cruise Masters of Minnesota, to fellow employee Kathryn Wicker. While she and Jeff still plan to lead a few trips later this year, they are transitioning into retirement. Jeff retired in 2016 after 40 years as a UPS driver, but has helped Evi lead Cruise Masters trips since 2003.

When asked what she will miss the most, Evi quickly replied, “Oh, no doubt, the people. Clients, guides, escorts, cruise directors. The people who have traveled with us started out as just being clients. Many of them are our best friends now. Seeing the world, that was also good. But that was secondary to the people.”


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A Cruise Masters group made it as far as you can go at the Mount Everest Base Camp in 2011. "Even though we were deprived of oxygen, we celebrated our ascent," Evi Thompson said.
Courtesy / Evi Thompson

The feeling is mutual with some of her frequent fellow travelers.

“Evi is great,” said Susan Lind of Bemidji, who made many Cruise Masters trips along with her husband, Kevin. “There are many places in the world we wouldn’t have gone if we didn’t know the person who was leading us and knew she would get us there and back safely. Jeff and Evi are just a lot of fun to travel with. It’s a team, and they’re both a lot of fun.”

Jim and Jo Hanko of Bemidji also made a number of trips with the Thompsons.

“You always knew when Evi was in the room,” Jim said, “and I say that positively. She was often the life of the party. She made traveling easier and much more fun than it would have otherwise been. And Jeff was a great partner. He would sit back and let her do her thing, and he would help when he was asked to help.”

That partnership began in 1975 when Jeff and Evi were married in the West German city of Geislingen, situated in the Swabian Alps. He was 21; she was 17. They had met the previous year at a discotheque. Evi and her friends enjoyed disco music. Jeff’s unit was stationed nearby.

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Evi and Jeff Thompson pose in front of the Latefossen Waterfall during a 2015 trip to Norway. "It's unique because it has two seperate streams flowing from Lake Lotevatner," Evi said, "and as they fall they join together."
Courtesy / Evi Thompson

Making America home

After the kerfuffle at JFK Airport, the couple made their way to Jeff’s family farm south of Warroad. Evi pictured a ranch like what she had seen on television’s “Bonanza” series, and when she discovered that wasn’t the case, she quickly told Jeff they needed to move elsewhere.

That’s when they landed in Bemidji and made it their permanent home. Jeff got his job with UPS and Evi enrolled at Bemidji State University. Three years later she graduated summa cum laude with a major in German and minors in French and Russian.


“I was going to be a language teacher,” Evi said, “but … I didn’t want to be in Grand Forks to get my master’s degree, so I decided to take a job here.”

She worked as a restaurant hostess and at First National Bank Bemidji for a short time before joining the staff at the Bemidji Pioneer from 1980 to 1990. Evi began as an advertising clerk and worked her way up to advertising manager.

Then came a call from Jean Humeniuk, owner of the Travel Chalet. She asked Evi if she ever thought of being a travel agent.

“I laughed and said I love to travel, but I don’t think I want to be a travel agent,” Evi recalled. The next day she visited the Travel Chalet to see what Humeniuk actually did, and so began a 32-year career in the industry.

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Evi Thompson is shown being thanked for bringing gifts to the Maasai women in Tanzania during a 2018 trip.
Courtesy / Evi Thompson

After the first five years, Evi’s wrists gave out from all the typewriter and computer work, and Humeniuk suggested she just start selling cruises, which at the time were booked over the phone. That led to the establishment of Cruise Masters, a division of the Travel Chalet. In 2001, Evi purchased Cruise Masters and two years later she started escorting groups along with Jeff.

A topsy-turvy start

Their first group trip was a doozy. They were cruising from Buenos Aires, Argentina, around Cape Horn to Chile. All went well until they got to the Chilean fjords and a hurricane struck. Other cruise ships decided to stay put, but their captain chose to give it a go, and the result was near disaster.

“We call it the Perfect Storm Trip,” Evi said, noting how 80-foot swells tossed the ship around, causing chaos on board. "For 48 hours our ship just bobbed in the ocean riding it out. We were in our stateroom in our beds, praying the rocking and rolling would end. Dishes, glassware and wine bottles broke, food in the galley spilled all over, gift shop racks fell over and broke ... a real mess.

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Jeff and Evi Thompson, front, had a turbulent first cruise in January 2003 when leading a group from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Santiago, Chile. The ship was caught in a hurricane.
Courtesy / Evi Thompson

“We always have a welcome home party after our trips and after that one, they were all saying, ‘That was so great.’ They still talk about it.”


With Evi making the arrangements and Jeff doing whatever else was needed, Cruise Masters trips were mostly planned to perfection. Evi was there to solve almost any problem.

Mary Melchior of Bemidji can attest. She and her husband, Bob, went on many trips with Evi and Jeff.

“On one of our trips we had eaten at an outdoor restaurant and the next day I tried to use the credit card,” Mary said. “They would not accept it because there had been a big charge on it. Evi stepped in and called the credit card company. She may be little, but she’s got a loud voice. And it was all taken care of.”

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Evi Thompson shows photos to children in Rwanda during a 2015 trip. "I always love taking photos of children that have never seen themselves and then showing them the photo," she said.
Courtesy / Evi Thompson

Evi also was often open to making slight changes in plans, as frequent traveler Trish Quistgaard explained.

“Once when we were in Cambodia, (my husband) Jon had read an article about some recently uncovered temples at a place called Sacred Mountain,” Trish said. “She talked with a local guide and they worked out the trip. We had food boxes, and our travel involved riding motorbikes through nature across rocks. She always puts a little extra into it. She just takes care of things.”

Jeff Thompson beams with pride when talking about his wife’s travel career, and chuckles when he thinks back to Evi’s first airline flight. He knows she found her true passion and made traveling pleasurable for all.

“When we would be in a room and you’d hear Evi’s laugh, the whole room would get this little smile on their face,” Jeff said. “She just had the little laugh that everybody loved. She’s fun to be around.”

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A 2010 Cruise Masters group stops for a lunch break from driving across the Serengeti in Africa.
Courtesy / Evi Thompson
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Jeff and Evi Thompson visited one of the 17,508 islands that compose the Republic of Indonesia during a 2017 trip. The island is recognized for having the largest lizards on earth, the Komodo dragon.
Courtesy / Evi Thompson
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Jeff and Evi Thompson pose with their guide and their camel during a 2022 trip to the Sahara Desert in Morrocco.
Courtesy / Evi Thompson
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Evi and Jeff Thompson get up close a personal with a huge silverback gorilla during a 2015 trip to Rwanda.
Courtesy / Evi Thompson

Dennis Doeden, former publisher of the Bemidji Pioneer, is a feature reporter. He is a graduate of Metropolitan State University with a degree in Communications Management.
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