CHRISTIANSBURG — Providing the means and opportunity for students to fold 1,000 paper cranes and sending them to Japan as a peace offering for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Enlisting and equipping students to participate in a mock gubernatorial debate. Showing and discussing relevant movies in class instead of giving rote lectures. Thelma Lucas taught school using the strategies of engagement and enrichment before the terms became educational buzzwords. And her community remembers and reveres her for it.
Lucas died on March 9, just shy of her 84th birthday, from a sudden and brief illness. Born Thelma Flory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, Lucas was the sole daughter and youngest of three children. She grew up surrounded by love, according to her only child, Ellen Bennett Vest of Christiansburg. Lucas was proud of her Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, inspiring one of her nicknames, ‘Dutch.’ Vest recalls that her mother was influenced early on by a Quaker teacher, and she eventually landed at a Quaker college, Earlham College, in Indiana. She also attended the University of Miami (FL), in the city where she then began teaching first grade.
Upon returning to Pennsylvania, she met Bill Bennett, the best friend of one of her brothers. Bennett brought Lucas back to Southwest Virginia, where his family’s roots lay, after the couple married. Lucas continued her teaching career in the Christiansburg and Auburn school strands and became an integral part of the community. After divorcing Bennett, Lucas married local fellow educator Sam Lucas and, as Vest said, they had a “wonderful relationship” until Sam Lucas’ death 18 years ago.
By all accounts, Lucas was vibrant and full of life. She was well-read, well-traveled, and loved classical music. An inquisitive soul, Lucas prized learning. Terry Smith Kelley of Blacksburg, Vest’s second cousin, said Lucas was “never an old person.” Lucas was fun, especially loving the holiday of Halloween when she always dressed as a witch and often embellished the role with a cauldron full of dry ice. Vest said it was not beyond her mother to “do something dingy” but then laugh about it.
Lucas was also called “Tinkerbell,” a nickname given by neighbor children Emily Stanton and Howie Stanton because she was always undertaking something exciting. Vest added that the moniker fit her mother since Lucas would “flit in and out” and could be “spontaneous and childlike.”
As a parent, Vest said, Lucas was loving and understanding. Lucas was her best friend but a mother first, laughing that Lucas could still give her the “hairy eye” to communicate disapproval. She appreciates that her mother never coddled her, but rather encouraged her to try new things even at the risk of failure.
Lucas was a deeply spiritual person. She attended Bible study at St. Paul United Methodist Church as well as a centering prayer group at Christiansburg Presbyterian Church. Jennifer Makin of Christiansburg, coordinator of the Wellspring ministry at CPC, became acquainted with Lucas through the prayer group. She said that the fluid nature of the ministry matched Lucas’ free spirit. Makin also commented that Lucas, a private person, was “more of a listener than a sharer.” It was clear that Lucas possessed the gift of affirmation, Makin said, as she made everyone around her feel special.
At the hospital and at the packed funeral and visitation, Vest learned from myriad people how Lucas had touched their lives.
Vest said the friends who were unable to come to the hospital called, and she is convinced that her mother could hear their last words to her even though she could not respond. Professional opera singer Robert Chafin, whom Lucas had taught in first grade, sang to her over the telephone in her dying days.
Kelley, Vest’s cousin, noted Lucas’ thoughtfulness. Lucas would sometimes drive a long distance just to see Kelley’s children in a play. Kelley said that after her own mother, Doris Smith, died, anonymous flowers appeared in church on Smith’s birthday and Kelley was sure Lucas was to thank.
Lucas’ widest impact was as a teacher. She took an interest in the students she taught, lifted them up, and made them feel good about themselves. She provided opportunities for students who might otherwise not have had them, like arranging horseback riding lessons or taking home students who were working on after-school projects for her class if they lacked transportation.
Greg Warden of Christiansburg was a student of Lucas’ around 1990 at Christiansburg Middle School. Lucas was “one of my all-time favorite teachers,” he said. “She inspired me because she taught in a way everyone could understand and took time to make learning fun.” Warden kept in touch with Lucas because his mother was a caregiver for Lucas’ beloved aunt, and the families became close. Whenever the two would meet, Lucas always gave a big hug to him. Warden described Lucas as a second mother. Kelley concurred, saying that Lucas was a “third parent to a whole lot of people.”
Lucas was an entertaining co-worker as well. Doing unexpected things was one of her hallmarks, remembered Pat Turner. Turner, of Blacksburg, was teaching “Macbeth” to her senior English class when, during the witches scene, the door suddenly opened and Lucas appeared in a witch costume. In those days, circa 1980, said Turner, Auburn was a very rural school and Lucas was determined to introduce her students to the world, so she would take her seventh-grade class to Roanoke on a field trip to include seeing a department store where, for many, it was their first chance to experience an escalator.
Connie Bell of Christiansburg team-taught later with Lucas at Christiansburg Middle School and marveled at how Lucas could relate to all the students, from the learning disabled to the gifted. Noting her penchant for going above and beyond, but in a low-key way, Bell recalled that Lucas once took a child out and bought the whole family boots when she realized they were unprepared for winter. The large number of retired teachers who attended Lucas’ funeral was a great tribute to her, Bell said.
Vest mused that Lucas would want to be remembered as someone of faith who loved unconditionally, who saw the best in everyone and the beauty in everything. Lucas lived what she believed, exhibiting compassionate and caring behavior in every realm of her life while enjoying the ride. Vest said that in her later years, when among people who would say “I’m having the best time,” Lucas would respond, “I’m having the best time.”
And she did.
– Written by Jennifer Poff Cooper