SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
Julie Thomas was walking down Riverview Drive toward the USA Pro Cycling Challenge on Aug. 20. She heard a roar from the crowd, so she shifted to a slow jog, two small dogs in tow.
As she’s recounting her story, you have a feeling it’s not going to end well. But you have to stop her.
“You were jogging?”
Julie Thomas says she’s 92 years old. You have to believe her, because her daughter is right there to vouch for her, and Kathy Thomas, a retired Air Force major general, is about as unimpeachable of a source as you can get.
Spend some time with Julie Thomas, ask her the right questions, and you’ll learn that she’s full of such surprises. That tendency began fairly early in her life, at least by age 22, when World War II broke out and she enlisted in the Navy.
Anyway, as she jogged toward the race, she missed the curb, fell and broke a tooth. She also broke her nose in the fall, but she barely mentions it in the recounting. A doctor reset the nose – “click” – and that was that. It’s the chipped tooth that makes her self-conscious, particularly in the presence of a Herald photographer.
She walks nearly every day, she does New York Times crosswords puzzles. Most of all, she just doesn’t give off the aura of being old.
“There’s no reason why you stop doing things, because age is just a number,” Julie Thomas says. “It’s up to you to make it a life.”
Women have made huge strides in the U.S. military throughout the last four decades. But before it was possible for women to be generals came pioneers, those who shook the societal norms and forged a new path. Put Julie Thomas in that group.
Women have served various roles in the military for millennia. But it could be argued that, in the U.S., their integration in the military blossomed during World War II.
America was fully into battle mode not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The county needed able bodies for myriad tasks. On July 30, 1942, President Roosevelt authorized the enlistment of women in the Naval Reserve. The Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, was formed, and within a year 27,000 women had enlisted. By 1945, 8,000 women had become commissioned officers.
Julie Thomas remembers that Sunday in 1941 when the U.S. officially declared war. She was horrified by the cruelty pervading the world at the time.
“I remember it just gripped me so emotionally, and I felt very patriotic and that it was my duty to do something.”
Whether it was swimming out to a raft in the middle of the lake or enlisting in the military, Julie Thomas wanted to do everything her two older brothers did. One brother joined the Marines and one the Navy, and, one weekend in 1943, Julie and her mother drove from their home in well-to-do Westchester County, N.Y., to North Carolina, where her Marine brother was training. The military discipline impressed her.
“It wasn’t long after that, that I joined,” Thomas says. “I had heard about the WAVES, and I thought, ‘Isn’t that fascinating? I would like to do my part.’”
She signed up in fall 1943, and at Hunter College in New York was given a primer on the military, physical training and taught to march. She was sent to Indiana University, where she spent six months studying business and administration. In 1944, she was assigned to the Naval air station in Jacksonville, Fla., and put in charge of rationing.
It’s hard for contemporary Americans to imagine rationing. But, during the war, many goods were in short supply – gas and certain foods such as sugar foremost among them – and the entire country was required to conserve. At the base in Jacksonville, Thomas made sure that the Navy was doing its part.
One day, a young man who’d seen duty at several battles, including Midway, serving on a search-and-rescue vessel in the Pacific, came to make a request.
“This charming young man who had just returned from Kanton Island” needed gas for his car, she recalls. Preston Thomas was a cowboy from Lander, Wyo.
While her mother was raised with linen napkins held by silver rings, Kathy Thomas says, out on the range, her father used his sleeve for a napkin. He was honest and honorable, and the two quickly hit it off.
They met Feb. 1, 1945. They were married May 20, 1945.
Julie Thomas left active duty in September 1945, proud that she’d served her country and gratified it led to the discovery of her husband. Preston Thomas remained in the Navy, taking his family with him to bases in Morocco and Japan.
The marriage produced three children and lasted 64 years, until Preston died of a stroke while attending his 70th high school reunion in Wyoming in 2009.
Kathy Thomas says her parents instilled in her a sense of adventure, and a feeling that she wasn’t limited in anything, including her career choice. Her Air Force career spanned from 1972 to 2006, and, in her early years, she helped write the plan to integrate women in the Air Force.
After Preston died, mother and daughter became roommates, living part of the year in Durango and the other part in northern California. The tandem can be spotted sometimes at social events, such as a recent fundraiser for the Women’s Resource Center.
In the workforce, in sports, in the military, women have come a long way from the 1940s. It was because the Julie Thomases of 20th-century America never bought the prevailing wisdom that women just didn’t do what men did.
Says Thomas, “I never thought of it that way.”
firstname.lastname@example.org John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.