Thelma Sharlow of Brattleboro, 94, poses on her grandson’s motorcycle.
Courtesy photo
Thelma Sharlow of Brattleboro, 94, poses on her grandson’s motorcycle.

‘We’re all strong’

Thelma Sharlow reflects on life, loss, and a 94-year journey, much of it in Brattleboro

BRATTLEBORO — Thelma Sharlow, who has lived in town for 77 of her 94 years, says that her life "has been complicated."

Her story started in the hills of West Virginia where her father cared for Sharlow and her two sisters, Kitty and Eva Ann, after their mother walked away from the family when Sharlow - then Thelma Colleen Facemire - was 5 years old.

"My dad was a West Virginia hillbilly. Once, he took me into the mines on his shoulder when I was a little girl. It was dripping water, and he had on a hat with a light on it. It was so dark down there. What a hard job that was," she remembers.

The little family lived with her grandmother for a few years during the Great Depression, while her father picked up some small change as a Stanley Brush door-to-door salesman.

Amid beehives, cows, pigs, and chickens, her grandmother's property had a well, and Sharlow used to drop a bucket down into the water and pull it back up on a long rope.

"We were more fortunate than many. It was a hillbilly farm. There were two stores in the town, a school, and a church, that was about it," says Sharlow.

How did a West Virginia girl end up in Brattleboro?

"I went to five different high schools in four different states as we moved around during my schooling, my father taking work where he could find it," she says.

"Eventually, we ended up with an uncle on a small farm in Warwick, Massachusetts," Sharlow continues. "My father worked in the woods. He and my uncle cut lumber, and from there we moved to Hinsdale, New Hampshire."

When Sharlow was 17, she went to Brattleboro to the unemployment office to look for work.

"The woman there asked if I had experience in anything, and of course, I didn't, but I did tell her that I had raised my younger sister, and that got me a job babysitting for the Dunham family."

That year, at a dance at the Armory (now the Gibson-Aiken Center), she met a friend who introduced her to her future husband, a handsome man in an Army uniform. A year later, after graduating from high school in Hinsdale, she married him.

"Arthur 'Bud' Jacobs served in the Army during World War II, where he participated in the Battle of the Bulge. He was a shotgun runner," she says.

"He was so handsome in that uniform," says Sharlow with the smile of a young girl in love.

After the war ended, Jacobs was assigned to spend a year in Germany.

"It was a dangerous place to be because some Germans refused to believe the war was over and they would shoot at the American servicemen," she says.

Jacobs was six years older than Sharlow, making him 23 when they met.

"My sister Kitty said, 'Are you really going to marry that old man?' remembers Sharlow with a hearty laugh.

'Welcome, Thelma'

The newlyweds set up housekeeping on the corner of Northern Avenue (a road that would be discontinued by the construction of Interstate 91) and Western Avenue. They lived with Jacobs' mother, while he went to work at the Book Press and Sharlow began working at what then was the Holstein-Friesen Association of America.

"My name is Thelma Colleen, and everyone up until that time called me Colleen," says Sharlow, whose new boss had other ideas.

"I had filled out the application with my full name," she says. "On my first day, my new boss said, 'Welcome, Thelma.'

"And I told him, 'Thank you. I actually go by my middle name, Colleen.'

"He didn't miss a beat - he acted like he didn't hear me and said, 'OK, Thelma.'"

"Everyone has called me Thelma since that day," says Sharlow with a laugh. "That's the way things worked back in the day."

Sharlow continued working at the Holstein for the next 18 years, along the way becoming a working mother. The couple's four children - Betty, Arthur, Randy, and Colleen - came along between 1949 and 1958.

"I lost a child between my two boys," Sharlow says with a sense of resignation in her voice.

In fact, Sharlow has seen a tremendous amount of loss in her life. When questioned, she says with stoicism and determination, "I'm a survivor. I'm going to be 95 on June 20 this next year."

Sharlow's mother-in-law, Minnie (Carpenter) Jacobs, who continued living with the couple until her death, developed Alzheimer's disease.

"It ran in my husband's family," Sharlow says. "His aunt also had it, and his brother had it, too."

She recently lost two of her children to Alzheimer's as well.

Her son Arthur died of the disease in 2020 at the age of 67. Sharlow cared for her youngest daughter Colleen for many years at home until she had to go to a nursing home. Colleen died this past August. She was 65.

"Children aren't supposed to go before their parents," says Sharlow.

There was another huge loss even before that.

"Bud and I bought a camp on Lake Eden in northern Vermont," she says. "We loved to go up and enjoy the water in the summertime, but really, it was a hunting camp."

In 1975, while hunting in that area with their two sons, Jacobs suffered a heart attack and died in the woods. His elder son found him.

Bud Jacobs was 52.

"Everybody says I'm strong," Sharlow says with acceptance, "but really, we're all strong. Some of us have just been put to the test more than others. I have my bad days just like anybody else. There have been a lot of things I wish I could change, but I couldn't."

'I've been lucky'

Sharlow would rather put a positive emphasis on all that she has experienced in her 94 years.

She would eventually leave the Holstein-Friesien Association for a career in the insurance industry, where she eventually was supervisor of the commercial lines department at Richards, Gates, Hoffman, and Clay Insurance, now The Richards Group.

In 1985, she married Lionel Sharlow. They retired in 1993 and moved to Florida for 14 winters, according to a letter to the editor of the Brattleboro Reformer which she wrote in 2008. ("To all those not happy with the Reformer's editorials, please move to Florida, and you will be very happy," she wrote.)

Lionel died in 2010. They were together for 25 years.

"I've been lucky. I've been able to travel to Denmark, Paris, the Caribbean, and I've been on several cruises. For my 90th birthday, I traveled to see my eldest daughter Betty, who was living in Shanghai, China at the time. I stayed for almost two months," she recalls with a grin.

In turn, her four children gave her 10 grandchildren.

"When you are 90-something, the grandchildren get gray-headed before you feel very old," she says with a laugh.

Now, 29 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren have joined the family, making 42 descendants across the three generations.

"The eldest grandchild is 50, and the youngest great-great-grandchild will be 2 next summer. They are scattered all over the United States," says Sharlow with pride.

Sharlow's eldest child, Betty McGinn, is looking forward to hosting her mother in her home in Virginia for the winter.

"She has the biggest heart of anyone I know. Family, stranger, this country, other countries - she cares about what happens to everyone," says McGinn.

How will Sharlow spend her 95th birthday?

"Who knows!" she says with a sly smile. "I've always just taken each day as it comes along."

This News item by Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates