COLUMN AND PHOTOS BY BOB BAIRD
Helen Thorne was surrounded by friends and four generations of her family Sunday as Sloatsburg Mayor Carl Wright marked her 103rd birthday praising her as both “a national treasure” and “a custodian of our nation’s history.”
Wright’s words brought her to tears, thanking those celebrating with her at St. Joseph’s Adult Care Home. “Thank you everyone, for being so nice to me and speaking so nice to me all the years,” she said.
Soon she cradled a proclamation marking her birthday – Feb. 8 – as Helen Thorne Day in Sloatsburg and shared a hug with 5-year-old Logan, one of her 13 great-great-grandchildren,.
Wright, a retired high school history teacher, noted many of the events that marked 1912 – the year when Helen was born to Charles and Carrie Ackerson at the family’s home on Hemion Road, a street named for her maternal grandparents. The area was populated with her relatives and she spent many happy days at the home of her grandparents, learning to love the outdoors. She loved to walk and garden – interests that would last a lifetime.
The events of 1912 – including the sinking of the Titanic, the admission of New Mexico and Arizona as the 47th and 48th states, the introduction of Oreos, Lorna Doones and Lifesavers, and the spectacular performances of Jim Thorpe at the Stockholm Olympics – were just the first chapter of a life filled with historic events.
“Your life has paralleled the journey of America through the twentieth century,” Wright told the assembled residents of St. Joseph’s, located on the sprawling property of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate. “You were born prior to the outbreak of World War I. You have seen 18 presidents. You were a young girl in the Roaring Twenties. You lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s and World War II. This experience alone elevates you to be a member of what is considered to be the greatest generation. You have lived through the cold war, 9/11 and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. You witnessed Charles Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 and 42 years later, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. You saw and heard the first talking motion pictures, marveled at the event of television, and were captivated by the age of computers. You watched a president resign, one impeached, one elected without a majority of the popular vote and the first one of African American descent. You have seen the results of the technological revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union and a change in the American culture. You are a custodian of our nation’s history,” Wright said, capturing the highlights of Helen Thorne’s long life.
But, Wright said, the length of her life alone was not the only reason for celebration. The quality and content of her life were equally important.
At a Valentine’s Day dance in the early 1930s, Helen met Harry Thorne. They quickly became friends and discovered they were soulmates. They soon entered a marriage based on love, respect and shared values that would last almost a half-century.
Together, they raised three children: Joan M. Bray, who now lives in Montgomery; Martin Lee, who lives in Sidney, N.Y., and Harry E. Thorne, who is deceased.
Before they began their family, Helen worked at Avon, not far from the family home on Orange Avenue in Suffern, a house where she lived on her own until age 100.
Work at Avon gave way to fulltime mothering until their children were grown.
She later returned to Avon, but would dash home at lunchtime to care for both her husband and son when illness required that she take on the long-term role of caregiver. “She never did anything for herself,” says her daughter Joan. “She was always more family oriented.”
By the time she retired in 1975, Helen Thorne was surrounded by a large and loving multigenerational family including 11 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and 13 great-great-grandchildren.
Many of them streamed into the dining room at St. Joseph’s on Sunday, bringing hugs, gifts and balloons for the family matriarch.
Helen Thorne moved to St. Joseph’s, which has fewer than three dozen beds, when it became difficult for her to navigate the two-story family home.
She recently broke a hip, requiring a nursing home stay. But when she saw her family and St. Joseph’s administrator Sister Michele, she wanted to go home – back to St. Joseph’s and her friends.
The home, Sister Michele says, is undertaking an effort to expand, with a license change to allow an assisted living wing. They hope to raise the funds to make that a reality, so they can provide appropriate care to a broader audience.