Carnett: Thelma was a first-rate 'first sergeant'

I'm pretty sure she was the first person with Parkinson's disease I ever met.

I've since met dozens.

That was 18 years ago. And that's when I became reacquainted with Thelma Harwood. I was in my 25th year as Orange Coast College's director of community relations.

Thelma was 82 years old and had retired 18 years earlier. She was living in an airy and pleasant care facility in Fountain Valley.

I knew Thelma during my first seven years at OCC but hadn't seen much of her since her retirement in 1978. Then, in 1996, I arranged a meeting with her.

Thelma was secretary to OCC's founding president, Basil Peterson, from 1951 to '64. She retired after 27 years of service to the Coast Community College District. Her last assignment was secretary to district Chancellor Norman Watson.

She died in 1999 at 85.

When I was hired as OCC's 26-year-old public relations director in 1971, I don't mind telling you, Thelma scared me. As the chancellor's secretary, she wielded considerable power and served as the district's "first sergeant."

She frequently called my office — we didn't have caller-ID in those days — and would begin each conversation the same way. She'd bark out my first name like a command.

Like any good top kick, she spoke her mind and wasn't shy about chewing you out if you'd messed up.

In later years I grew to love her. I saw what a generous lady she was.

I took the liberty of calling her at the care facility in '96 for a meeting. Her husband, Woody, had passed away many years before, and they'd never had children. But her many OCC friends served as her family.

At the time of my visit, she'd had Parkinson's for 15 years and was confined to a wheelchair. Her room in the care facility was comfortable. Paintings decorated the walls, and crocheted pillows and stuffed animals were everywhere.

She was unable to walk, and her head drooped to one side, but she displayed a cheerful spirit and had a keen mind. She welcomed me with open arms as I entered her room. She told me about Parkinson's.

I should have been more attentive. I had no idea at the time that within a couple of years my own father would be diagnosed with the disease, and I'd follow eight years after.

I told Thelma I was putting together an oral history project and a video celebrating OCC's 50th anniversary, coming up in 1997-98. I asked if I might be able to conduct an on-camera interview with her.

She was delighted to participate.

I returned to see her several times at the care facility and, in early 1997, she came to the campus studio for an on-camera session. She was enthusiastic and perky and gave a great interview. Her memory was extraordinary.

She visited OCC's campus in her wheelchair for a couple of 50th anniversary events and was delighted when we presented her with flowers and introduced her to the crowd.

She died 18 months later.

Thelma had only a couple of years after retiring at the age of 64 before she was diagnosed with Parkinson's. The disease rapidly advanced and tossed a cruel wrench into her retirement plans.

"My life changed drastically," she told me during one of my visits. "Woody and I had planned to travel, but because of my condition we were unable to do so. We had so many places we wanted to see."

After retiring, she remained in her Corona del Mar home for 16 years. The final 12 were spent alone, following Woody's death. Thelma was eventually confined to a wheelchair and lived her final five years in the Fountain Valley care facility.

"The crew that I worked with at OCC was the most wonderful — most loyal — group of people I've ever known," she told me. "They enriched my life immensely."

And she enriched mine.

Now that I share her affliction, I wish I could visit her one more time. I'm sure she'd be generous with her counsel.

I think often about Thelma.

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