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Thelma Winter – a Life Sketch

by Tracy Harder, granddaughter and PAA’s 1979 Class President

Young Thelma

Hoping to make it to her Mom’s place in Minnesota, Emily and Pearl were surprised when Thelma Vera Payne entered the world not at the Emerson home in Minnesota as expected but on a quick stop to see the Payne family in Hankinson Ranch – Hankinson, North Dakota. This would not be the first or the last time Thelma would do the unexpected.

Emily and Pearl would be inordinately proud of little Thelma. She was cute and smart. Emily, while traveling with toddler Thelma, gave her a firm command to sit on the suitcase with their belongings while she used the facilities. A passerby saw her, thought she was a doll, and was startled when Thelma called for her mother. Throughout her life, her parents made a point of telling her she was average in looks, so she wouldn’t become vain. It wouldn’t be until later that Bob Sr. would tell her that she was a good looking woman, and she looked great in any color so long as it was red.

A proud father, Pearl would pick up Thelma and put her on the picnic table at church potlucks and have her recite the books of the Bible, Genesis to Revelation, and other Bible texts from memory. He would say, “Can you believe how smart my little girl is?” When Thelma earned her Master’s degree from University of Oregon, he would again remark, “Today, I have seen something that none of my siblings ever has – my girl has earned her Masters Degree”.

Thelma was given the task of helping her mom with the children. The oldest of nine, she was the second in line to care for them. Elvin came first, then Clyde, Cassius, Earl, and finally, hallelujah—a sister—Vadah,  then Jesse, June, and last, Ted. Each one held a special place in her heart. She had so many stories, which she would write and tell through the years.

Emmons County, N. Dakota had a small, rural school. She walked the mile to school. Thelma writes that her first teacher was Josephine Opime. “Even though my mother had a teaching certificate, she sent me to school “tabla rosa,” a philosophy for letting the school system do the teaching.” She quickly learned that letters made words and that words made up stories. She was hooked on reading just like that.

That winter she was sent quickly home because a blizzard was coming. Later her mother found her floundering in the drifts of snow behind the barn, nearly frozen to death. She would struggle with the cold feet and hands the rest of her life. She would always prefer an 85 degree day. During the second World War, Thelma was in a religion class at George Fox, listening to the professor speak about the horrors of hell. After describing several painful details, the professor, who knew she was an Adventist turned to Thelma who was shivering near a drafty window and asked, “Does this idea of a burning hell bother you, Mrs. Winter?” “Oh no,” quickly replied Thelma; “It would have to be something besides hot to bother me.”

Thelma, with her mother’s support, would push her on to a track of learning in rural schools, wherever she could find them. When she finished the eighth grade, he mother was determined that she would attend an Adventist academy out West in Oregon. Thelma writes: “In the fall of 1929, Grandpa, Grandma, and Uncle Clinton Emmerson, as well as our family, were ready to go west to Oregon. Riding in two Model T’s with all the bedding, boxed dishes, and personal belongings was quite a trip. It took nine days of driving, the family reached Portland, Oregon.” Knowing that family was in Newberg, they moved on to settle down. Thelma would enroll at Laurelwood Academy, but have to withdraw because of health issues. When she was well, she would go down the street to Newberg High School, where she would finish her education.

Around town, Thelma noticed a very handsome man who was a bit of a rebel. She describes that he had a bit of a “Bogart” aura. They spent quite a bit of time going to church and family activities. On her 19th birthday, while driving around Portland, Bob turned to her and said, “how about we get married?” After a bit of discussion, they decided to go across the river to Washington, where they could get married with the Justice of the Peace, without a wait. This caused quite a scandal the among the Newberg brethren, who promptly decided that Bob and Thelma would have a wedding ceremony, blessed by a minister, right after the church service the following Sabbath. It would begin a marriage, which would last almost 49 years.

Thelma would give birth to a son Robert Joshua, named after his father.

The Depression was a struggle. The family would move to Glendale, California for a few years, but eventually move back to Oregon.

Taking jobs to support the family was everyone’s job. Thelma writes of learning to pick berries and cherries, gathering walnuts and hazelnuts, can pears, pick and pack peaches—all the seasonal work which people kept doing for a living. She was fast and good at the jobs. Throughout most of her adult life, she would pick and can food for the family each summer.

Then came another son, Clarence Stephen, and the beginning of World War II. Steve and Bob would grow up, with family around them.

Thelma continued to make her “famous” pies throughout life.

Thelma and family would work crops in addition to her working at Jon’s Ice Cream, where she became famous for her pies, particularly lemon meringue pie. Truckers would stop and wait for her pies to get out of the oven.

One day while picking green beans, Thelma was talking across the row to a woman, who had been accepted to Berkley. Thelma stated that she planned to go to college one day. The woman told her that lots of people “plan” to go to school, but they don’t ever do it. Thelma writes, “The next Monday I was at the registrar’s office at Pacific College, now George Fox, enrolling for classes that would eventually lead to a degree in English.”

Thelma would begin teaching at Portland Union Academy, where she would teach for 31 years. Over the years, students would come and go, some loving her and some not so much. She would teach English, History, Bible, Spanish, and other duties such as librarian. School was her true calling. She thrived on working with teenagers, going on field trips, chaperoning overnight campouts, and after school tutoring. She lived vicariously through her student’s accomplishments.

Upon the advice of Jim Dixon, she would begin jogging at the age of 50. Six days a week (the Lord said to rest on the seventh), Thelma could be found running on the streets, parking lots, and tracks, looking for money or discarded bottles and cans which could be turned in for money. Her “Funny Money” account reached almost $12,000 before she quit running.  She matched that money and sent those dollars to International Children’s Care, run by her friend Alcyon Fleck.

Retirement would be short. With the death of her husband Bob in 1983, Thelma would return to PAA to teach her grandson Steve, for one last year. She would then get a one-year call to teach at Emerald Junior Academy.  The following year, Bakersfield Adventist Academy would invite her to teach. Of course, this area being one of California’s hottest cities was a joy for her. She would invite students over to her house for dinner, reading poems, working on papers, and playing Scrabble. In the six years she was teaching at Bakersfield, she would also move in with the Berbawy family and become a favorite in the community. Her teaching methods would become more student-centered and differentiated.

When granddaughter Tracy started a family, Thelma was ready to move to Thousand Oaks, California to play nanny. With the SIDS death of  “precious MacKenzie,” Thelma once again found herself teaching part time at Newbury Park Academy, this time teaching Spanish. Over the next five years, she would play nanny to her great-granddaughters as well as teach part time.

During her late 80s and early 90s, Thelma would tell people that she was a wanderer and that her home was wherever she would hang her hat. Living part time in Oregon and part time in California, she wanted to be wherever the action was, so long as it was warm. Eventually, she would move in with Tracy and family because she would still be a part of “school.” It was her desire to still be involved with young people.

The loss of her younger brothers and sisters was difficult for Thelma. But it was the loss of her younger son Steve, which caused her to realize she was aging. No longer just stating her age, she would excitedly saying, “I’m 99 and a half”—and then “100 in August.” With her health still strong, Thelma would reach 100 years old with zeal. She wanted to see the Lord come in the East. She loved her Eagle Rock church family, relishing the fact that she was the oldest of the Golden Eagles, the seniors club. Daily, she would get up and go to Newbury Park Academy with Tracy to be with her beloved caregiver Ana Meza and the school family. She was affectionately called “Grandma” by staff and students alike. They all loved her quick wit and genuine love for youth.

It wouldn’t be until June, 2017, that she would be forced to realize that she couldn’t just do whatever she wanted. After a church picnic, she “crumpled” while trying to push ahead instead of waiting, and she fractured her pelvis. Ordered into rehab, Thelma found that “rehab” meant that she was with “old “ people, of which she wanted no part. She would say, “can’t you find me a rehab with young people? All these people are old, and some of them are kind of crazy.” However, the staff fell in love with her smart mouth and great stories. They loved her zest for life.

On July 5, Thelma failed to wake up when called by her CNA. Admitted Sherman Oaks Hospital, she would spend her last two days, surrounded by her family. She had always said, “I don’t want my body to outlive my brain, and I don’t want my mind to outlive my body.” God granted her wish. On July 6, she slipped into that “one short sleep.” She waits now for her Lord and Savior to call her home.


Thelma Winter, August, 1915 – July 2017

Read Thelma’s memories of PUA / PAA HERE.

Read PAA’s Tribute to Thelma Winter HERE.

See more photos and share your memories via facebook.

Share your memories with our alumni office at

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