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.”
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.
“He told me he (Burton) had passed,” she said. “That was a real shock to me.”
Finding her way
Thelma was a widow at age 47. She had to look after herself and her children.
Fortunately, she’d already found a way.
Sometime before his death, her husband’s union had gone on strike. Worried that her family would go hungry, Thelma contacted an employment service. She was hired by a wealthy woman who wanted Thelma to dust the house and take care of her pampered dog.
The woman’s lifestyle was far from Thelma’s experience. She was raising her children in the projects. She wanted to get them out, move them into rental property just outside the tenement zone.
When her employer heard about the plan, she asked Thelma why she’d never looked into buying a home. The idea seemed crazy to Thelma. Who would loan her money?
The answer was right in front of her. Her employer gave her $10,000 to put toward homeownership, and for the first time, Thelma’s family had a place of their own. The house “wasn’t perfect or nothing,” she said, but it was theirs.
Over time, the house’s problems became too much. The downstairs area was without heat, and one of Thelma’s daughters developed pneumonia. Again, Thelma’s employer stepped in to help.
With another $5,000 gift, Thelma was able to buy a better home. She remained a property owner throughout the years, even as she moved to the Oakland area and to Sacramento.
Burton’s death benefits and pension put Thelma on sounder financial footing. Long before then, though, she’d begun volunteering.
In the early 1950s, she’d volunteered to head the food service program at the Uptown Church of Christ in San Francisco. She continued in that role for more than 50 years.
Her charitable efforts included donating clothes and giving financial help to those in need. Sometimes she opened her home to total strangers. Once, after a man fell out of a crop-duster and was injured, she allowed him, his wife and their five children to move in with her.
“Thelma also volunteered as head cook for vacation Bible camp for several years, providing free food to community children,” her granddaughter, Charlotte Carey, wrote in a nomination for the Salute to Senior Service award. “Much of the food served was donated from her own pocket.
“Thelma has also been known for holding special classes teaching young women how to keep house, raise children and treat their husbands. ... She has ... provided a ‘safe home’ for numerous developmentally disabled adults who would otherwise be homeless, teaching them life skills which later would serve as a trade by which they would become gainfully employed and self sufficient.
“All of her trainees became successful at living independently.”
A Sooner state
Moving to Oklahoma was a test of Thelma’s independence.
She is lucid and engaging despite a dementia diagnosis. She only stopped driving when she got lost on a familiar route when she was about 87. She stands up to exercise most days — quite an accomplishment for a woman who has been issued walkers and a wheelchair.
She tries not to use them. In fact, she said, when she flew to Oklahoma to determine if she wanted to move in with her granddaughter, she abandoned her walker in the baggage claim area. Just walked off and left it behind.
Once she’d moved here, Thelma instructed her granddaughter to take her to every senior center in town.
She fell in love with the Metropolitan center because it smells pleasant, offers a variety of activities and has a good mix of white and black residents.
She is active in the Northeast Church of Christ, 4817 N Martin Luther King Ave., where she cooks for Bible school students. She donates money to the church’s prison ministry.
In short, she thrives.
“That’s the life of a senior citizen,” she said. “The more you can stay active, the longer you’ll live.”