Flying High on 100th Birthday : 'Tugboat Tessie' Celebrates With Blimp Ride, Recalls Her Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thirteen years ago, when Theresa O'Connor was 87, she won $2,000 and various prizes on the television show "Tic Tac Dough."

O'Connor, who turned 100 on Sept. 17 and has a year left on her driver's license, still drives the car she bought with the money. "It's a little crackerjack, a Mazda two-door," she said at St. Mary Medical Center, where for 22 years she has been a volunteer.

Being on that program with host Wink Martindale ("I'd like to get ahold of Wink again.") was one of the highlights of her life.

It was nothing to compare, perhaps, with her days making rescues on Lake Huron, when, as the first woman to be licensed as a tugboat pilot on the Great Lakes, she was known as "Tugboat Tessie."

Or the blimp ride she took recently as part of her 100th-birthday celebration.

But it was up there with her stint as an extra in the 1960 movie "Elmer Gantry," in which, as an elderly member of the audience at a revival meeting, she put a coin in the collection plate. She met Burt Lancaster, who starred in the film as a Bible Belt preacher. "It was quite a thrill," O'Connor said, "but I don't think he'd remember me."

She had been selected for both her movie and TV appearances while living at the Long Beach Senior Center. She has spent much of her time at the center since moving to California in 1956 from Port Huron, Mich.

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Wearing her blue volunteer smock, O'Connor was on duty at St. Mary on a recent morning, at last released from the whirl of birthday parties that had enveloped her. Among the cards she received was one from President Clinton.

She does paperwork one day a week in the hospital's mail room. Until she was 96, she worked four days a week, usually delivering cards and letters to patients.

"They put the carpeting in and decided it was too much for me to push that cart, so after a big scrap I gave it up," said O'Connor, known for her straightforwardness. "Now they tell me to just sit here and be an ornament."

This seemed a joke, but Thelma Bivens, who works in the mail room, said it was true. "She's a morale builder," Bivens said, "because when she's off, everybody asks, 'Where's Tessie, where's Tessie?' At one time she thought about leaving us, and I said, 'No, Tessie, you're so nice, all you have to do is come and sit in that chair and let us look at you.' "

"I can't do that," said O'Connor, who in June was honored as Senior of the Year by Long Beach City College.

O'Connor was following in the footsteps of her father, Robert Perry Thompson, when she became a tugboat captain.

"Oh, those were the days," she said, recalling gales and rescues as clearly as if they had happened last week, particularly one storm in 1913:

"Thirty-five ships lost and I don't know how many lives. There was a big 504-foot boat, and she was turned upside down. She had a load of coal in her and 35 in the crew. A couple of days after the storm my father took the tug and a diver out and there she was, her bow up and her stern submerged, gradually sinking. There were no rescues from that."

On the day she was married, she earned $1,000 for her father by rescuing a crew and putting out a fire on a passenger boat. "We towed it away, then I went back and got ready for my wedding," she said.

Before she married Charles (Biz) O'Connor, who was in the ship-service business, he would take her out in a rowboat alongside the big ships as they went past Port Huron. When they had finished loading laundry, packages and papers on the ships, he would say, "Give me a kiss or I'll make you walk back."

O'Connor laughed at that memory and said, "So I had to kiss him. Oh, I loved that."

After her days on the lake, O'Connor was chief clerk in Michigan's Selective Service Office, then worked at a munitions plant. The O'Connors came to California to retire when their home was bought for park land; they had been married 58 years when he died in 1974.

She never remarried, but in recent years has had two beaus.

"They really aren't boyfriends, just friends," she clarified. "But one poor guy is in a hospital with Alzheimer's, and the other one just got out of the hospital with pneumonia."

"He gets around on a cane," added the volunteer, who uses a cane herself, necessitated by a fall six months ago. "I'm slower than time, and you ought to see the two of us limping around together. He comes and gets me and takes me to his place. He's got a big microwave, and that's what we do. And we watch 'Jeopardy' and 'Wheel of Fortune,' and he takes me home. He's 89, just a youngster."

O'Connor, who lives alone in a downtown apartment, used to go to dances at the senior center, "but I ran out of steam." She shops, plays bridge and reads romance novels. "I like the old-time romance," she emphasized. "I don't like this modern stuff."

She wore a white dress under her smock, and fancy-framed eyeglasses. "I never liked to look shoddy," she said. "I have my hair done every week. They say you don't get old if you keep doing those things."

O'Connor said clean living enabled her to reach 100. "I never smoked," she said. "I can take a social drink--but I can't take two."

Her two children are dead, but she has 10 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren and 10 great-great-grandchildren.

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On the last Saturday in September, O'Connor, who had always wanted to go up in a blimp, was getting ready to board Goodyear's Eagle on a field in Carson. She looked sharp in a dark blue skirt and blazer, and a T-shirt that commemorated her old tugboat.

"I'm on Cloud 9 right now," she said.

Crewmen lifted her 4-foot-8 frame into the gondola, where she took a seat in the cockpit next to the pilot, Nick Nicolary.

"This is like driving a 200-foot tugboat," he said to her.

The droning blimp rose from the ground and drifted toward the ocean.

"Where's Long Beach?" O'Connor asked.

"It's right out there," said Nicolary. "You can just make out the skyline."

O'Connor looked and said, "I can't believe I'm here."

The blimp passed over oil tanks and the erector-set type structures of refineries, and, in the hazy, blue distance, a tugboat could be seen bringing in a barge.

"That could be me," O'Connor said.

Near the Queen Mary, the blimp turned over downtown Long Beach. Below was St. Mary Medical Center, identified by a cross on the building. O'Connor looked out the open window and waved a handkerchief, but she was up too high to see the sisters waving back.

After coming in low over a golf course, where men paused from teeing off to look up, the blimp docked and discharged the only 100-year-old former tugboat operator it had ever flown.

"I thought I was in heaven," O'Connor said.

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