“I needed a job, it was as simple as that,” Thelma explained. “The Postmistress said that there was an opening at the park down the road, Oscar Scherer State Park. She suggested that I apply, so I did.”
Not that the job fell into her lap.
“I didn’t hear anything from them for two months, so I didn’t think I had gotten the position,” she said. “Then out of the blue, they called me back and asked me to come in for an interview and then told me I was hired.”
Thelma’s grandparents had retired to Osprey a few years before, and had enough land for a second house on the property.
“My parents built our house themselves,” she said. “They were eco-conscious before it was called that. They used some new and some recycled concrete blocks and glass bottles for the walls. The glass bottles were saline bottles that Dad got from work. They would lay a brick and then stack two bottles next to it. It let the natural light in without giving up any privacy. My mother still lives in the house today.”
Thelma’s father was an orderly at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where he worked for 20 years. Her mother was a homemaker who raised Thelma and her younger brother, Walter.
Thelma learned her love of nature from her parents.
“When my dad came home from work in the summer, he would change into a bathing suit and we would go to the beach,” she remembered. “Sometimes we would go for walks in the pine flatwoods behind our house.”
She also learned some of the cycle of life in Florida from those woods.
“Every few years, there would be a fire started by a lightning strike,” she said. “It wasn’t until I was in the Florida Park Service that I realized that those fires were normal and important for the health of the habitat.”
Thelma was a prize-winner as a child. Or at least her pet was.
“When I was 5, we were given a pregnant goat,” Thelma said. “She had two babies, and I got to keep one as a pet. Her name was CindiLu. We entered the Sarasota Pet Parade and won first place!”
Thelma grew up surrounded by the history of Southwest Florida.
“The elementary school I went to is now the visitor center at Historic Spanish Point,” she explained. At the time the Palmer family still owned Spanish Point, and it was off limits to the schoolchildren.
Thelma went to school, got married, then went to work for the State Park system.
Her husband was Gene Proctor. “He was my insurance man,” she grinned. “One day, he asked me out. I said yes. We had a great time, and we fell deeply in love with one another. Eventually we got married and started a family. He was the light of my life.”
Gene and Thelma had two children, both boys. Arnie, born in 1971, owns a computer tech support company in Sarasota. Tim, born in 1973, lives and works in Tallahassee.
“He is a legislative analyst,” laughed Thelma. “I had to write it down to remember the exact title.”
While working, she continued her education.
“I started attending the University of South Florida to work on my bachelor’s,” she said. “I majored in environmental science. So at one time I was raising two boys, working full time for the park service and going to school.”
Somehow, she survived the stress and graduated with a bachelor of science degree.
In 1990, Gene was in an automobile accident and passed away. Thelma was left to raise their two children, now teenagers, on her own.
That same year, a position was created at the Florida Park Service’s District Four office. The job was as an education and training specialist.
Thelma spent the next two decades training the rangers and other staff that have passed through all of the parks in District Four and beyond, including Gasparilla Island State Park, where she now works.
“In June of 2011, a position came open here at the park, Park Services Specialist,” she said. “I applied for the position and was hired. It is fun working with the same people that I trained for all of those years. Now they are teaching me things about the park. I am learning the history of the lighthouse and the island, about all of the historical and natural resources that we have here.”
She loves her new job, especially when kids are involved.
“Children between second and fifth grade, they are the best,” Thelma explained. “They still have the curiosity and a wonder for the world around them. They ask the best questions and soak up information like little sponges. Quite often, I end up learning from them. Someone will ask a question that I don’t know the answer to, so I have to go look it up.”
In fact, this week is the annual visit of students from Vineland Elementary School. Thelma has been leading a program for some of their second and third grade students.
“They are studying the railroad and its history, so when we went out on the beach they wanted to see where the railroad went out to. I showed them what is left of the old phosphate dock and then we spent some time exploring the beach.”
As much fun as the beach walks are, sometimes the answers that Thelma has to give to a child’s question is not what they want to hear.
“The storms late last week pushed a lot of pen shells up on the beach,” Thelma explained. “The shells are still together and perfect. The children want to take them home, but the animal inside of the shell is dead. We have to tell them it’s not a good idea. Once we explain to them how the shell will smell before they even get back to the school, they are usually ready to leave it behind. If a little more persuasion is needed, we mention that mom or dad may not be happy to have that smell in their house.”
Other than conducting interpretive programs for groups that come to the park, some of Thelma’s duties are similar to ones she had at the district office. She does reports, acts as the park’s safety and accessibility coordinator, and performs “other duties as required.”
Of course, there are many differences, too. At Gasparilla Island, Thelma helps with facilities maintenance, exotic plant removal, and in the summer she helps monitor sea turtle nests.When Thelma is not at work, she has a number of hobbies that keep her busy.
“I do woodworking. I always liked doing projects, and two or three years ago I got a Dremel,” she said. “I’ve been practicing with that for a while. Then this year I got a scroll saw. I’m still learning different techniques and tricks with it. I made a plaque for some friends with an eagle carved on it, and I use the Dremel when I’m making pine needle baskets.”
She also likes to explore the outdoors, whether taking her black dog, Smokey, for walks, or going a bit further from home.
“About eight or so years ago, I got into kayaking. I like to kayak in the bay, up South Creek and in the Myakka River. You never know what you are going to see on the water. There are always birds and fish, and sometimes you see manatees. One time I was out with a few people, and a manatee came up to us. It was even bigger than the kayaks!’
Thelma’s love of teaching children is part of her life, even when she is not doing an interpretive program at the park.
“I am a Sunday school teacher at my church,” she said. “I teach second through fifth grade, and I am the director for our children’s church. One day someone asked me if I wanted to teach a children’s class, and it grew from there.”
Thelma is always asking new questions and looking for answers. But most of all, she is loving the job that allows her to spend time in her native Florida environment.
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