Written by John Starkey
“I didn’t want it to be such a big deal,” Thelma Coleman said of her 100th birthday party July 10 at the Remington Valley Ranch senior living facility. “I don’t want to be the center of attention.
“But I saw a lot of my old friends – more people than I expected. And the staff really did a very nice job.”
As Remington Executive Director Diego Barrantes read a proclamation from Governor Rick Perry in honor of the centenarian, staff members brought out a large cake and a roomful of friends sang ‘Happy Birthday.’
“It’s an amazing day,” said Barrantes. “You talk about history – about memories, experience and knowledge – this lady could write a book.”
Resident Melvin Dart took the microphone to tell about the ten years of friendship that he and his late wife, Nell, had shared with Miss Coleman.
“She’s the first person we met here,” he said. “And the friendliest.”
“I’ve known Miss Coleman for years,” said Mary Higbee of the Irving Heritage Society who was among the many guests in attendance. “She lived in the Heritage District, and she actually initiated the idea for tours of the area’s churches.”
Sustained by her faith, the Bible never far from her side, Miss Coleman is feisty but fragile. Her voice is firm, her countenance bright, and she remains as businesslike at 100 years of age as she must have been during her career as a secretary to Karl Hoblitzelle and other leaders at Interstate Theater.
“I was in the room when he created the Hoblitzelle Foundation,” she recalls. “They didn’t call us executive secretaries then; we were just secretaries. I was one of the first women to work for an executive. It was traditional to hire a man for that position, but during World War II they had nowhere else to turn, so women got a chance.” Miss Coleman is proud that she played a part in the creation of the organization now known as Executive Women International.
Nor is she the family’s only pioneering woman. Her sister Tilla Lindsey became a realtor – the first Irving-based member of the Dallas Board of Realtors and a driving force in the creation of the Realtors Association.
Both girls, along with brother Travis, moved with their family to Irving in 1936 as the dustbowl claimed the family’s ranch in Oklahoma. Thelma Coleman began work right out of high school and didn’t retire until about 1977. By that time she and her sister were both living in their parents’ home.
“The very next day after I retired, my sister and I got in my car and started driving to the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “My brother lived in Yakima, so we went to see him and stayed three months.”
So retirement began with a road trip, but soon Miss Coleman was impatient for something else to do with her time. She didn’t watch TV (and still doesn’t, except for newscasts and occasional cultural performances), so the hours hung heavy. But then a chance visit to a specialty shop piqued her interest. Surrounding her on all sides were examples of fine needlework. The next day she returned with her sister – and a new passion was born. Her rooms at the Remington overflow with their handiwork.
Tilla Lindsey passed away in 1987, leaving Miss Coleman alone in the home.
“But I didn’t feel alone,” she said. “I was raised to be independent and secure. My mother wasn’t a professional – she was a homemaker – but she raised us to be honest and forthright, and to take responsibility for ourselves.”
It’s only been in the last ten years that her arthritis has forced her to curtail her stitch work, and consider an assisted living setting. After selling her home to Fran Bonilla, Miss Coleman moved to the Remington, then managed by a lifelong acquaintance, Mary Lou Blaylock. She now has someone staying with her around the clock.
“I think I’m lucky to be able to stay here. I haven’t left the building for years now, but I don’t think I’m missing anything. I don’t need that many things out there in the world.
“I do miss my friends at Woodhaven Presbyterian,” she said, indicating a pile of correspondence nearby. “But just look at this – I think the pastor must have made an announcement from the pulpit, because these are all birthday cards from people at Woodhaven. Some of them, you can tell were signed by children.
“These are precious to me. I’ve been very lucky to be surrounded by fine, honorable people throughout my life.
“I guess there are millions of people like me, but here’s one thing I know: It’s not the same world now that I grew up in.
”I’m perfectly content right where I am.”