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Nonagenarian credits volunteer work for her longevity

Thelma E. Burton, 91, has been volunteering for decades. The effort has helped her live a long and fruitful life.
by Ken Raymond Published: June 19, 2012

When her doctor told her she couldn't live alone anymore, Thelma E. Burton didn't listen.

It wasn't up to the doctor, as she saw it, and Thelma, now 91, isn't a woman who lets other people make decisions for her.

A year passed. The doctor offered the same grim advice, but Thelma still wasn't ready to yield. She waited one year more before deciding he was right. Then she left everything and everyone she knew in California and moved into her granddaughter's Edmond home in 2007.

“I've got four daughters and one son,” Thelma said, “and they're fine people. But I didn't want to live with them because they're too bossy. I'm independent. I like to take care of myself.”

She takes care of others, too. Despite her age, she is vibrant, hardworking and relentlessly positive. Those same qualities earned her recognition earlier this year as Oklahoma's winner of the Home Instead Senior Care network's Salute to Senior Service Award.

Thelma volunteers at the Metropolitan Better Living Center, 702 NE 37, five days a week. She cooks meals at the center on special occasions, makes homemade bread rolls and encourages other seniors to stay involved in life and exercise.

“I like to be active. I think that's why I'm still living. I don't like to do like most old people,” she said, laughing, “and I even try to help old people stay alive.”

Hard times

Thelma was born in 1921 in Glenmore, La., on the outskirts of Shreveport.

Her family had little, and within five years of her birth, they had even less. Someone in Glenmore had killed a man. Suspicion fell on Thelma's father, an immigrant from India who wore an eye patch. Apparently he resembled the killer.

The family was ordered to leave town.

“A man came to our house and told us if we didn't get out of there,” Thelma said, “he was going to kill the whole family.”

They rode out of Glenmore in the back of a pickup, huddling together for warmth in the midst of winter's bite. They relocated to Shreveport, where Thelma would remain until the 1940s or 1950s.

As a girl, she picked cotton, developing a strong work ethic. She excelled in school; despite racial laws that capped black education at the 11th grade, she was offered two college scholarships. Her academic dreams smacked up against cold economic reality.

Even with the scholarships, she said, “my parents didn't have the money to send me.”

After an ill-fated first marriage, Thelma married Matthew D. Burton, who took her with him to California. They moved into a rent house, working together to provide a better life for their family.

Burton, who was illiterate, worked near the docks. His bosses offered him a promotion, but it involved paperwork. Thelma told him to take the job; no one needed to know he couldn't read or write.

Each day, she showed up at Burton's workplace, ostensibly to bring him his lunch. The visits allowed Thelma to take care of the paperwork, leaving no one the wiser. Their trick worked, allowing Burton to be promoted again and again.

Then tragedy struck.

Burton wasn't the type to make a fuss about himself. If the family had worries, he'd shoulder them alone. So it was that Thelma never knew he was sick until it was too late.

One day Thelma returned from a Bible class to find her husband gone. Her mother-in-law told her that Burton had gone to the hospital. She found him there, and either he couldn't tell her what was going on or he didn't understand.

“He didn't tell me he had cancer. ... He said they were going to operate on him the next day, and I asked what for, and he said he didn't know,” Thelma said.

After the operation, she knew something went wrong. She could tell by the look in the doctor's eyes and the sad shaking of his head.

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by Ken Raymond
Book Editor
Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In...
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