by Leslie Gnadinger
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 1997.
Seated at her sewing machine towards the back of the Rocky Mountain Branch Issue Room, Thelma Young mends zip bags beneath pictures of children-snapshots of her beloved grandchildren and photos of the children of her co-workers. We are discussing the NOLS family-her family. She has considered this brood a part of her own since she began working at NOLS more than 30 years ago. "I have more children than I know what to do with!" she exclaims.
Thelma wasn't looking for a job when she interviewed with Paul Petzoldt and Tap Tapley in 1965. In fact, caring for her own family was first priority. "My neighbor worked for Paul part-time. She told him how I'd been copying GI Joe play tents and such for my children because we couldn't afford to buy the real thing. Paul and Tap needed a seamstress so they asked me to come for an interview."
"I was a confident, only child from the flats of Oklahoma . . . I started sewing at the age of five," Thelma says, but she didn't know how to make camping equipment. Nevertheless, Paul and Tap must have been impressed with Thelma's talents because she started working for them two months later.
Initially, Mrs. Young, as Paul respectfully called her, sewed square tarps for NOLS. Unfortunately, many of her first tarps promptly fell apart because, "none of us knew a thing about fabric!" Thus began months of instruction for Thelma, as well as years of hit or miss creations for the school.
"Paul and Tap were the best teachers in the world. I was so dumb and green, it wasn't even funny," Thelma remembers. Paul and Tap and whoever else was around helped Thelma cut materials and showed her what they knew about camping equipment. She learned fast.
And she wasn't alone in her quest. At the time, NOLS was the "biggest testing center around." Six or seven people, including Thelma, Paul and Tap, would stand around the cutting table, bouncing ideas off each other. If an experiment failed, it was back to the drawing board. "It was a time of excitement and closeness of the workers," Thelma remembers fondly. A time when the NOLS staff began to take on the intimacies of a family, albeit, an unusual one.
Those first five years with NOLS were her best. She had free reign to brainstorm, design and make patterns. Paul gave her permission to look at catalogs and copy equipment. NOLS gear developed under her skillful fingers through trial and error. People would say, "Don't you get your feelings hurt when people criticize your work?" Her quick response was, "No, I love it." Thelma thrived on feedback because in her mind, it only led to a better quality product.
She says, "We never saddened over a failed product because there was always a new way of doing something." Perpetually in a state of being tested, in or out of the field, NOLS equipment required constant attention to re-work and detail. Paul used to say that they should take Thelma in the field with them to make repairs. He'd say that they could just, "plug Mrs. Young's sewing machine into a currant bush," Thelma remembers.
To make their wool shirts, stuff sacks, wind gear, and sleeping bags, Thelma and Paul would buy surplus fabric from a store in Denver. Together with her crew, she guessed on the build and size of an average body and made clothing accordingly. If an extra tall or usually short student appeared for a course, they made gear on demand. A larger wool shirt or a smaller sleeping bag could be custom made within hours.
Now, she says, "The process struggle is less. Maybe we were a heartier bunch then than now. We don't suffer now like we did then. Back then we didn't have anything: no gaiters, no wind pants, and no wind shirts."
Working diligently and contentedly on that porch in Sinks Canyon where NOLS was headquarted in the early days, Thelma was often assisted by her NOLS children-the young students and instructors who hung about "donating their services," working around the property in exchange for a sleeping bag, a spot on the floor and all the food they could eat.
Whether helping Thelma cut material, preparing equipment for a course or cleaning up around the grounds, everyone did their share. Thelma remembers one quiet student who spent an entire day in the dark basement by himself doing laundry. And if there wasn't any work to do? "We'd go pick currants and choke cherries and I would make jelly with the students," she remembers.
In the winter of 1970, NOLS moved to the current site of the Rocky Mountain Branch at the corner of 5th and Lincoln. Those winter months were an extremely busy time for Thelma and NOLS because all the equipment had to be inventoried and moved from the stone building on the banks of the Popo Agie River Rise to the new facility. With such a small in-town staff and because somebody had to do it, Thelma began sewing less and working in the office more. For the next few years, she essentially became an equipment manager; conducting inventories, ordering materials and supplies, and working closely with the instructors.
Surprisingly, Thelma Young has never been on a NOLS course. When Thelma was hired, she had young children to take care of and she couldn't justify being away from them for an extended length of time. Her family was first priority. And her NOLS family needed to be looked after as well. Times were tight and staff were few, if she went on a course, who would work? With Tap in Baja so often and Paul so frequently in the field, any available staff person was needed to carry out the day-to-day activities at the base.
"Paul fired me several times because I wouldn't go on a course," Thelma says. At that time Paul had mandated that all employees must take a course. "I'd start to walk out of the building and he would change his mind," she laughs. "He'd hire me back, sometimes he'd even give me a new job title because he couldn't afford to give me a raise," she adds.
Thelma's absence from course activities never prevented her from developing extremely close ties with the instructors and students. Perhaps they understood her need and desire to remain in town. In fact, her dedication to their needs and their course's needs rather than to her own probably ballooned their respect and admiration for her.
"Those early students and instructors,....they were good kids," she says. Thelma developed maternal feelings for all of them...even the bizarre ones: there was one student, an older, professor type, who returned from a course without his de-issue slips. At that time, students carried slips of paper into the field listing any personal or group gear they carried. This particular student failed to return with his because he had used them as toilet paper. As Thelma de-issued him, she was so struck by his story, she decided to credit him for all of his gear anyway.
Speaking of bizarre, Thelma recollects that one morning, during one of the huge breakfasts next to the Popo Agie, someone had accidently set out the cat food box next to the cereal. The box had seen several patrons before anyone noticed that this particular box didn't contain cereal. Looking at it from another perspective, maybe it wasn't an accident. Thelma remembers an instructor in the 70's who used to carry cat food on course professing that it contained all the essential nutrients a body needs.
Regardless of any instructor eccentricities, Thelma affirms her admiration for them. "Instructors are special. I've never envied other people for money or the things they have, but I envy the instructors. I do not know how they take students out, teach them, keep them safe, keep them interested . . . and then always come back jubilant."
In addition to the multitudes of course responsibilities required of instructors, they also had to handle any extraneous in-town tasks that arose. Early on, instructors did most of the issuing. At one point, Thelma told Paul, "We need to hire people to help with issue days because we're wearing the instructors out." So NOLS hired issue room workers, but then, "some instructors thought they deserved to sit in their "lawn chairs" and watch the process. Nowadays, the instructors do even more. They have come full circle. Thelma postulates, "That's as it should be; people pulling together from all sides of NOLS. Like last summer when the issue room crew didn't show up for a four course issue day," and employees from many departments showed up to help out.
Over the years, because of working so intensely with instructors, one might surmise that Thelma has her "favorites." But Thelma claims that she has no favorite instructors. She admits, however, that "No one compares to some instructors. I don't know the newer ones as well, so I feel kind of sad about that. I've never told the instructors how good they are or how special they are to me," Thelma reiterates respectfully, yet with a smirk she adds, " 'cause I don't want them to get big egos. Put a pin in their balloons and bring them down to earth."
Times have likewise changed the nature of Thelma's relationship with students. In the 60's and 70's, Thelma had more interaction with students. Courses were cheaper back then, and students were an integral part in the planning process. Today students aren't needed to carry out the basic daily organizational tasks which enable a course to run. Their role in the process as well as their pre-course level of skill has evolved. "When they arrive at NOLS, they already know more about camping and they already own a lot of their own equipment." In contrast to the ever-changing roles of students and instructors, Thelma's position with NOLS changed less frequently. She quit once since she started in April of 1965-leaving for eighteen months in September of 1975. When she was rehired in May of '77, she returned voraciously to her sewing and created the famous Thelma Fly. For a woman who wants so badly to evade any nominations as a "NOLS legend," her reputation for legendary craftsmanship certainly precedes her. Sometimes, though, her reputation is larger than life. For example, Thelma is often credited with creating the first synthetic fill sleeping bags, a rumor which she quickly dispells. "REI had synthetic sleeping bags on the maket when I started. I collect rumors, and that's one of them."
In view of this, the next logical question becomes: Why has Thelma Young remained with NOLS for over thirty years if she's not seeking any recognition for her efforts? For Thelma, everyday has been a new experience, a new challenge and therefore, fun. "NOLS doesn't owe me anything. I'll be 67 in July and I still have fun doing this, so why should I quit? This is one of the best times in my life cause there's nothing to be afraid of anymore. I have wonderful grandkids and five birds. Everyday I want to do something different and change things. I don't have to worry about what people think or say about me. I'm always busy, always doing something."
"Other people worry about me more than I do." Far from being reckless, Thelma no longer needs to take risks. With her "been there, done that" attitude, she states, "when it's snowy and slick, I work at home. And I only work five hours a day since we cut back my hours."
Thirty years of hard work, taking on the ever-increasing challenges not only of the growing NOLS family, but also of her own family, has taught Thelma a well-disciplined work ethic. "I'm disciplined. If I have something I need to do, I'll do it. And it'll be a wonderful day when I get caught up on mending the zip bags!"
More about Thelma Young
Remembering Thelma Young
In Memoriam, The Leader, Winter 2000.