“Please remember me smiling, as that is how I will remember you all. And if you can’t remember me smiling, don’t remember me at all.”
Born Feb. 24, 1919, at the home of a midwife in Burns, Thelma was the youngest of eight children to Rose Belle (Fitzgerald) and William Franklin Harris. During this period in history, an illness had injected itself into many homes, and Thelma’s was no different. An older brother had already succumbed, her father was fighting to survive, and her mother was also quite ill during pregnancy with Thelma. In fact, the doctor suggested that termination might be the only way Rose would survive. Rose refused, and a beautiful baby girl, as well as Rose and William, beat the odds. (Rose would initially name her new baby girl, Juanita Belle, but soon after changed it to Thelma Belle.)
Our lovely “Aunt Thel” came into this world during many pivotal times in history: Prohibition one year earlier, as well as the aforementioned 1918-1920 flu pandemic to which she was born, and a woman’s right to vote just one year after her birth, Thelma spent her childhood growing up at The Narrows on the McKenzie Ranch, as well as The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where her brother, Bill, ranched, far removed from the hustle and bustle of rapidly changing life in the big city. She enjoyed her horse and her older siblings, but was mostly fond of her big brother, Bill. If Thelma wanted for anything, “my big brother Bill” would move Heaven and earth to make it happen. Her mother continually had a battle between saying, “No,” to young Thelma only to be circumnavigated by “my big brother Bill.”
Thelma was a curious child, always keeping her family involved in various, sometimes hair-raising pursuits of “Have you seen Thelma?” At the ripe old age of 2, our precocious toddler found and drank a bottle of bright red, cherry-flavored cough syrup. Back then, the alcohol content being what it was, this instantaneously made little Miss Thelma very intoxicated. She — after her family, heartbroken and concluding she’d fallen down the old well — was later discovered sitting behind the woodpile, laughing hysterically, and completely pie-eyed.
At the age of 3, Thel would mount her black horse and ride into town (The Narrows) where she would eventually be found and rounded up by her older siblings, “Sis” and George, to taken home. No amount of scolding kept her from repeat, yet unsupervised, outings with her beloved horse often jumping fences and gates to get to where she wanted to go. Her entire childhood was spent this way, leading her mother to often say, “I wouldn’t take a million for you and I wouldn’t give a million to get you back, either.” Thelma would spend much of her childhood (and a good bit of her adulthood) being independent and stubborn, often learning through experience rather than taking her sibling’s or parent’s word for it.
Thelma grew up in a time where they used lanterns to light their home. She often complained that, as a young child, she got stuck cleaning the chimneys of said lanterns as her hands, being much younger than her siblings, were the smallest and could reach up inside. Thelma also lived in the day of no electricity (boxes sat in northern window sills with damp towels over top to keep things cool); no refrigeration (ice was cut from the Silvies River and stored in an ice house for all to use as needed); and, if one was fortunate enough to travel by vehicle, a trip to Bend was a two-day excursion where one stopped overnight.
Thelma went to grade school in Burns (grades 1st through 8th back then), her freshman year in Burns, and her sophomore and junior years at Crane. (Brother Bill had rented the Cato Ranch at the refuge where they all lived for two years.) She returned to Burns for her senior year in high school. Her favorite subjects were grammar and Latin. She graduated in 1936 in what is now the Lincoln Junior High building. She was an outstanding student and truly enjoyed learning, which is something she continued to do throughout her long life.
Upon graduation, Thelma worked at The Nook (where the BEO is currently located). It was a restaurant serving mainly burgers, sandwiches, pie, and ice cream. She also worked for Grandma Schroeder at the Red and White Café, as well as for Gracie and Florence at the café they owned in town.
One of Thelma’s favorite recollections of her young adult years in Harney County was attending Saturday night dances in Burns at the Oasis and Tonawanda halls. It was in the day when everybody danced with anybody and you never turned a person down.
In 1942, Thelma traveled to Portland with her mother to see the Rose Parade, but learned it had been canceled because of World War II. Her brother, George, convinced them to stay so, she and Rose took up together in a room at a boarding house. Her father, William, was often away mining.
In the first six years in Portland, she worked for Safeway. Thelma could recount incredible stories of what it was like to live in a time of rationing. Jell-O products, obviously, were hard to come by back then. When freight was delivered on Wednesday, she would buy as many packages of chocolate-flavored pudding as allowed, making certain she took them to her brother Bill, who lived nearby, as it was his favorite. Thelma reminisced when Pet and Carnation canned milk were eight cents a can, chocolate chips were 10-cents-per-bag, and a pack of Wrigley’s, Dentyne or Blackjack gum were all five-cents-per-pack.
Thelma met her future husband Anthony “Tony” Buckmeyer in Portland in 1944 while working for Safeway. They were set up on a blind date, which eventually ended in marriage in October 1944. After a tour of the brand new Nabisco plant in Portland, Thelma was hired in 1951, and spent several decades working until retirement in 1984. She began her career in manufacturing and eventually ended up as office clerk. With her sharp mind, this was a custom-made job for Thelma. During remembrances of her happy years with Nabisco, she said that cheese-flavored Twigs were her favorite cracker fresh out of the oven, and that she loved being around the big machines utilized to make so many wonderful snacks and confections. Many friends were made through those years, including Bob Carter, who remained in contact with Thelma until her passing, keeping her abreast of the loss of so many of their former friends and colleagues and reminiscing about all of the good times they’d shared. It seemed they were the last two surviving of the wonderful team of people they once belonged.
Thelma was married for 41 wonderful years. During that time, she and Tony found a mutual affection for hunting, fishing, family, friends and the outdoors including memorable travels to Canada. Before her precious husband passed, he made Thelma promise to move back to Harney County (1986), so her family would care for her. She and former sister-in-law, Katie (Jones, formerly Mrs. Bill Harris) Wheeler, lived next door to each other and would spend the next nearly 15 years as neighbors and friends palling around the countryside. Every trip was a new, quite comical escapade. They once made an astounding discovery that, for two girls who grew up without anything except outhouses, they now shared four bathrooms between them. Until her passing, she also remained close with Katie’s sister-in-law, Faye (Harland) Jones, and her daughter, Sharon, who — even though they were not related — claimed they were closer than most who were. Aunt Thel also enjoyed time traveling with the Harris and Wheeler families (as well as extended family) around Oregon, along with trips to Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Arizona, California, and the Deep South. She cherished every memory ever created with her family.
In 1999, Thelma was Queen Mother during Harney County Pioneer Days, enjoying her role and loving being surrounded by family, friends, laughter, music and delicious food during the event.
Once Katie passed, Thelma’s family helped her move into the Rose Garden Apartments in Burns where she made new friends, Darrel and Betty Bethel, and their daughter, Susan; Ed and Jeanie Voltin, the girls at TBS, as well as Helen and Ashley, her wonderful cleaning technicians turned friends.
On her 90th birthday, Thelma was thrilled to be recognized not only by local friends and family, but by those who traveled from Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Texas and Arkansas to shower her with affection and well wishes. She continued her newfound contact with her precious southern family even making a surprise appearance to The Twins’ birthday party via Skype in 2015. They were just as thrilled by her appearance at their birthday as she was during her big day several years earlier.
Once Thelma decided it was time to be a little less stubborn and independent, her great-nephew, Rick and wife Michelle (Harris), took her into their home, which had been the plan for many years prior. They were blessed with her presence, always and up until her passing. Despite the nearly 50 years between them, Thelma and Michelle became best friends in 1999 and were rarely apart, thereafter. They could often be heard cracking each other up no matter where they were, but especially in the card section of the various stores in town or the waiting rooms at the doctor’s office or hospital. Many in town believed Thelma and Michelle to be mother and daughter. Neither ever corrected, but giggled quietly and always appreciated what they had in each other.
Anybody who knew Thelma understood what a phenomenal memory she was blessed with, as well as her beautiful nature filled with love, kindness and happiness, especially when she could exchange cards and phone calls on birthdays and holidays. Anybody who took the time could become lost in incredible historical stories our sweet Nana could convey not only about Harney County and family, but about this earth on which she lived nearly 100 years. Until the very end, she was still sharp, witty, and loving with a keen sense of humor. Oh, how her eyes would light up in her final days when speaking about “going home,” and how eternity was so close.
She is survived by nieces and nephews, great-nieces and nephews, great-great nieces and nephews, as well as great-great-great nieces and nephews whom she loved very much; and her beloved four-legged princess, Maxine, who adopted her upon Thelma’s arrival at Rick and Michelle’s home.
Thelma chose to forego funeral services because she realized that, by being 97, “there aren’t too many old friends left around anymore.” She suggests, in her honor, that “you gather your family and have a good, old-fashioned Irish wake,” even if that meant fried chicken drumsticks and sparkling cider were toasted in her memory instead of Irish whiskey, which she was not at all fond of. She also suggests that, should you prefer, donations be made in her name to the Harney County Senior and Community Services Center as she spent a great deal of time there after moving back to Burns in 1986.
Thelma was laid to rest beside her beloved Tony, and near her “big brother Bill” in Portland April 11 in the Colonnades at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.