Envision meeting someone who is weeks from turning one hundred years old. Imagine what we can learn from that individual: a century’s worth of insightful reflection, and the essential ingredients for longevity. A few weeks ago, I had the fortunate opportunity to learn those precise ingredients as I spent a sun-dappled morning listening to Marion Brown Thorpe reminisce, with a sharp mind, her celebrated past. A South Burlington resident since 1957, she will turn one hundred this November.
Born in Connecticut, Marion, at age six, moved to Vermont with her mother and sister to be closer to relatives after her physician father died from meningitis. “Sometimes my sister and I would go with him,” she recalled, referring to his patient visits. She took a deep breath before sharing her greatest wish: “If I could bring back one person to earth it would be my father.” Though his physical presence may be of the past, Marion carried forward his caretaking nature. As her college years approached, she told her mother she wanted to be a physical education teacher. But, according to Marion, her mother encouraged her to “do something to go with it.” Instead, she chose home economics, a critical pathway into higher education for American women at the turn of the twentieth century.
In 1938, Marion graduated from The University of Vermont with a degree in Home Economics Education, and then obtained a master’s degree in science from Syracuse University. She started her teaching career working as a study hall supervisor in Northfield, where, as she said, “They tried me out, I’ll tell you.” When I asked her to explain, she recalled a student who would hide an alarm clock in her desk drawer to annoy her. But she didn’t let such pranks wear her down. Her patience and yen to do for others worked in her favor. She was eventually offered a job teaching home economics. From there, she supervised a local Girl Scout’s troupe, and then accepted a position as Assistant State Supervisor of Home Economics. “It wasn’t easy leaving the Girl Scouts,” she said. “I had taught my students not to break a contract and here I was breaking one. But I couldn’t refuse the job.”
She ultimately returned to UVM to teach home economics, a program started in 1909 by Bertha Terrill, UVM’s first female faculty member and a positive role model for Marion.
Marion mentored innumerable students, launched many successful careers, and forged life-long friendships during her years atUVM. In 1974, after 33 years, she retired. But her tireless giving would be honored by the community and her students in the years to come. In 1987, she was recognized for 50 years of service to the American Home Economics Association. In 1999, she received the Outstanding Alumni Award from UVM’s College of Agricultural Life Sciences; and in 2001, a group of former students established the Brown Thorpe Student Enrichment Fund, in her honor. In recognition of her vital contributions to her students and the university, UVM presented Marion with an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at the 2011 commencement ceremonies.
Marion’s dedication to supporting leading women educators is shown through her devotion to The Vermont chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma Society International (DKG), whose mission is to promote professional and personal growth of women educators. In 2008, DKG honored Marion for her sixty-year affiliation to the group; she is currently the longest serving member of the organization. For many years she was the head of Alpha Chapter World Fellowship Donations, and was thrilled to meet an award recipient from Kryrgystan who was attending St. Michael’s College. According to Caroline Edmunds, also a DKG member, four years ago the group established a women’s scholarship fund in Marion’s name for women specializing in education. To date, four scholarships have been awarded to Chittenden County students.
Marion’s story of altruism would not be complete without a chapter about finding love – at sixty-five. Norm, her long-time next-door neighbor, helped Marion with chores after his wife of fifty-two years died. “He wanted to be closer to me,” she admitted. Eventually, he confided in Marion and told her he was lonely. One evening he went over to her house and asked her to marry him. “I said yes right away,” Marion recalled. “He fell in love with me, or I fell in love with him, I don’t know which way it was.” After they married, they established the Marion Brown Thorpe and Norman Thorpe Scholarship Fund to provide financial assistance to students in the Teacher Education Program at UVM. Norm died thirteen years after they married. But “He’s still here,” Marion affirmed, placing her hand over her heart.
For Marion, turning one hundred is an honor. “I never expected to live this long.” When I asked her what she believes has enabled her to live so long, she said, “I eat three meals a day and look out for myself,” then added, “Good living, whatever that is.” Though she demonstrated her flexibility by kicking her leg high in the air and dancing a jig in her chair, she acknowledged that she is careful and accepts help, especially when walking. “I don’t want to fall and break a bone, then you end up in the hospital, get pneumonia, and die. I’m not ready for that yet.”
In the years since her retirement, Marion has kept herself busy. She remains actively involved in DKG and her local church. She also spends time visiting with dozens of friends in the community and beyond. Sometimes she prefers to sit by the window, listening to WJOY on her hand-held radio while the afternoon sun bathes her remarkably youthful face.
But Marion is determined to keep giving, to keep helping others. “I do it through encouragement and gestures,” she said. “People give up too easily. You need to keep at something. You can always think of something positive.”
As I wondered exactly how she gives through gestures, she showed me her bear collection, a basket full of multi-colored treasures Marion knit with her own hands. She picked up one with brown-and-white stripes, and cuddled it close to her chest. “He looks like popcorn, so that’s what I named him, popcorn.”
She looked at me, her eyes glistening. “Would you like one?”
“I give them to whoever needs them.”
Generosity and compassion are truly the key ingredients in Marion’s recipe for longevity.
SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor