Thelma Howard’s Legacy of Hope : As a Disney housekeeper, she found her happiest place on Earth. Her bequest will help children find theirs.
He reminded us not to lose grasp of our dreams, reducing the process of hope and faith to its most simple terms--that we need only to wish upon a star. When Thelma Howard entered the home of Walt Disney in 1951, she brought her dreams with her, but it was a star she lacked.
For the next 30 years, Howard worked as live-in housekeeper/cook for Disney, his wife, Lillian, and their two children. It was a long way from her childhood home near Southwick, Idaho--a long way from the tragedy and misfortune that seemed to batter her down each time she managed to climb to her feet.
Her dreams were not lavish. Nothing about her was. She did not ask for fortune or fame, only for her wounds to heal, for laughter to replace a lifetime of tears. When she died, the world learned this month, she left a surprise to help children’s dreams come true.
The same year Howard joined Disney’s household, his studio released the animated version of a Lewis Carroll story. But Alice was not the only one who suddenly found herself in Wonderland.
It was an exciting time. In 1954 Disney’s weekly television show began, and in 1955 Disneyland opened. Within the Holmby Hills home, says Diane Disney Miller, one of two Disney daughters, it was the dawn of “golden years.”
Soon there would be the joy and laughter of grandchildren, who flocked not only to their grandparents, but to the woman who cleaned their house.
Thelma Howard was a handsome, quick-witted woman who loved football and the color pink. She smoked cigarettes, played a cunning game of gin rummy and baked a lovely boysenberry pie.
She was a confidante and friend to the Disney children and grandchildren. It was not a talent or way that she had with youngsters, says Miller.
“It was a gift.”
Walt Disney referred to her as “the real-life Mary Poppins,” although her nickname around the house was Fou-Fou, the closest one of the Disney grandchildren could come to pronouncing Thelma .
She was a perfectionist in her work, making sure the Disneys were well cared for down to the tiniest details, such as making sure the refrigerator was stocked with wieners.
When Disney came home from work, he would walk into the kitchen through the back door and oftentimes stop at the refrigerator to grab a couple of wieners--one for him and one for Lady, the family’s French poodle; and the two of them would munch them down cold.
Howard was treated with fondness, and shared in the family’s ups and downs. Each holiday season, Disney would reward her and other employees with a gift of Disney stock. Of course it wasn’t worth much then, and many employees would have preferred cash.
In 1981, Howard retired to a modest two-bedroom bungalow in West L.A. Her health began failing. Her heart, her lungs--it seemed her entire body was simply wearing out.
She died last June 10, days before her 80th birthday, and was buried in a pink casket at Forest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the Disney Studios.
Last Tuesday was the first meeting of the Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation Board of Directors, charged with carrying out her final wish.
In her will, half of her estate was left to her son, Michael, now in his mid-50s and living in a Long Beach home for the developmentally disabled. The other half was to benefit disadvantaged and homeless children.
In all, it totaled more than $9 million.
Her mother died giving birth when Thelma was 6 years old.
One day that same year, Thelma and her sister, Louise, 8, were cooking dinner on a wood-burning stove. Louise opened the oven door to stoke the fire, and flames shot out, engulfing her dress. Thelma ran frantically to get their father, but Louise burned to death outside the farmhouse.
The family was poor, and while in high school, Thelma was ashamed to be seen riding horseback to school, so her brother, Jay Mill, would walk with her; and when they were a couple miles from town, she would dismount and walk the rest of the way while Jay returned home with their gray mare named Blue.
Shortly after graduating from high school, she left Idaho to attend a business college in Spokane. She hoped to become a legal secretary, but ran out of money and had to drop out.
She stayed briefly with relatives in Northern California and in 1931 moved to Los Angeles, where she did office work and cleaned homes.
Before working for the Disneys, she was married briefly and had a son, Michael, whose rebellious childhood led him to the McKinley School for Boys, a boarding school in Van Nuys. He and a friend lied about their ages and joined the Navy when they were 16.
Chris Harris, whose name then was Alva Lee Phillips, was a friend and an accomplice of Michael’s, who often would spend weekends at the Disney home. He says he and Michael raised their share of hell together, but never at the Disney residence.
“Thelma was very strict and very dedicated to the Disneys,” he says. “She laid down the rules and made sure we followed them.”
Howard’s niece, Cheryl Wallace, says her aunt regretted not being closer to her son when he was young. Later, she would buy him expensive cars and a house. In her final years she fretted more about his welfare than her own, Wallace says.
Howard lived a frugal life, perhaps because of her upbringing, says Wallace, 46, who is head teller at the Potlach Federal Credit Union in Lewiston, Idaho, which happens to be the town where the Disneys were married in 1925. Mrs. Disney grew up nearby in Lapwai.
“My father (Howard’s brother) is the same way,” says Wallace. “He’s 76 years old and could retire comfortably, but he insists on working full time at the mill.”
As a youngster, Wallace says, she visited her aunt at the Disney home. She would stay in Howard’s quarters, but when the Disneys were gone, they would spread themselves out, pretending it was theirs.
“We would sit at their big dining room table, and I remember she would act silly, like a schoolgirl. She would sit at one end, and I would sit at the other end, and we would shout like, “Could you pleeeeeeze pass the peas.’ ”
Wallace says she discovered that her aunt had been hospitalized in 1991, when her father received notice that someone had applied to be administrator of her estate.
She flew to Los Angeles and found her aunt in a Santa Monica nursing home. “I was aghast,” she says. “She was always meticulous about her appearance, and there she was, she hadn’t been bathed, her hair hadn’t been brushed, she was in a ward with another woman and two men.”
Wallace discovered that a man claiming to be married to her aunt had told the nursing home she had no family and was attempting to gain control of her estate.
Howard said she had had a relationship with the man but denied being married to him. Attorneys could never verify the marriage. When the man and his son were left only $1,000 each in her will, they contested; a $24,000 settlement was reached.
About the same time, Diane Disney Miller noticed she hadn’t received the usual Christmas card from Howard. She, too, discovered her in the nursing home, where she kept a framed, autographed photograph of Walt and Lillian Disney in her room until it disappeared. She was given another and kept it hidden.
Howard was moved to another home where she had a private room. Miller sent fresh flowers every Monday and visited her often. When she died last year, Howard was living in a retirement home with beautiful gardens.
It was discovered that she had never sold any of her Disney stock, which through numerous splits had grown to 192,755 shares. Between 1980 and 1993, the stock has increased in value tenfold and was valued at $8.39 million. Her property and savings pushed the total over $9 million.
Those who knew Howard weren’t surprised that she wanted children to benefit from the fund, which is being administered by a board of volunteers in conjunction with the California Community Foundation, a nonprofit group that administers individual funds and grants.
Not long before she died, she was sitting with Evelyn Murphy, a social worker for the legal conservator handling her affairs. Murphy telephoned her daughter, and Howard overheard her mention that she could hear her granddaughter singing in the background.
“Can I listen?” she asked.
Murphy handed her the phone, and Howard listened silently to the tiny voice. Tears formed in her eyes.
Miller says she can still picture Howard dashing about the kitchen preparing Thanksgiving dinner. Grandchildren would be sprawled out all around her drawing pictures, helping and laughing.
Howard would be in full command--giving orders, moving quickly, laughing right along with them. Living her dream.