By Ryn Gargulinski: QCS
Longtime Tucumcari resident Thelma Fannie Donwerth said she’s never had any problems, really.
Sure, she’s lived in a couple of dugouts, had a house burn down, been through three husbands and was born during a covered wagon trip on the way to Quay nearly a century ago — but she says those challenges have not been a problem.
To celebrate her 90th birthday, family and friends are gathering Sunday at the Trinity Baptist Church for one of Donwerth’s favorite meals — cornbread and beans.
One may surmise it’s the hearty food that got Donwerth this far. Although she said that has something to do with it, she’ll credit the rest to her stringent faith.
Even a recent setback was soothed by prayer, Donwerth said, when she was coming home from the senior center and her vehicle was broadsided by another car.
She said the accident left her in the hospital for several days, injured and disoriented.
“I was out of my own mind,” she said, adding she instantly snapped out of her disorientation when a pastor came in and said a prayer over her hospital bed.
She hasn’t driven since the 2004 accident, and she said losing her mobility has been one of the hardest things she’s ever had to go through.
Born Jan. 17, 1916, during her family’s covered wagon trip from Oklahoma to the Land of Enchantment, Donwerth said they eventually settled in Porter, which is near San Jon, where her childhood years were filled with hard farm work and a dugout full of 10 kids.
“My older brother would get on his horse scootin’ around and Florence and I did all the work. Janie kept Mama and Florence and me worked for Papa. He was always very kind about it,” she said.
Farm work included endless trips across the field on the “go devil,” or plough that worked only one row at a time. She said they had an outhouse and a well, both dug by Papa, but not much in the way of other amenities. There was no such thing as reading a comic book under the covers in the older kids’ bedroom above the dugout.
“We had kerosene lamps but never had a lamp upstairs,” she said. “And it was cold.”
Donwerth said she had some fun times growing up and attending Porter school, like riding out to get the thrice weekly postal deliveries.
“We would get on the jackass and go get the mail,” she said. “We had to put a stick under his tail to make him run; he’d love it.”
Donwerth said she married her first husband in the early 1930s, while still a junior at Porter.
Donwerth had her first daughter, Gwen, during this 23-year marriage, which she characterized as “rough.”
“We were close to being hungry most of our time. We had no vehicle, only horses,” she said.
After her first husband was killed in what Donwerth described as a San Jon barroom fight, Donwerth moved from the area to briefly attend business school in Albuquerque and then beauty school in Roswell.
She eventually moved back to Quay, married her second husband, Ben Donwerth, and worked for the county clerk.
While she did clerical duties, her ex-mechanic husband had success with a farm, much to the dismay of other area lifelong farmers, she said. They even brought in workers from the Navajo reservation to live in the nearby barns, which resulted in the adoption of her second daughter, Linda Donwerth.
“The workers were just throwing the trash out the doorway,” Donwerth said, when she one day went to admonish them and found dirty diapers.
Discovering a Navajo couple with a baby who needed medical care, the little girl was taken to a children’s hospital where she spent 18 months.
After being discharged, Linda Donwerth was adopted by Thelma Fannie and Ben Donwerth.
“She’s smart,” Thelma Donwerth said of the woman who now runs the literacy program for Quay County’s Altrusa Club.
After Ben Donwerth died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a barn accident, Linda Donwerth and Mom were on their own working the farm, obtaining a South First Street home and eventually buying and running the old 54 Motel near Logan.
Her third husband came from Oklahoma but wanted to eventually go back there and they divorced in 1983, Thelma Donwerth said.
Her First Street home was burned in what she said was an accident involving a neighbor’s fireworks, and Thelma and Linda Donwerth now live on South Adams while they await the proper repairs.
“Mom has always relied on God,” daughter Donwerth said. “She’s been on mission trips to England and Mexico. She worked in reservations teaching the ladies to sew. She’s in the art league.”
Evidence of Thelma Donwerth’s artistry hangs on their South Adams’ wall in the form of dozens of paintings, of which Donwerth guestimates she’s done more than 1,000.
In addition to God, Donwerth said family has always been close to her heart, a large brood that now includes four grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren.
When asked if she had any other secrets on how she got where she is today, Thelma Donwerth replied simply.
“We were raised to work. Just as common, ordinary good people,” she said. “I am very happy to eat cornbread and beans.”
To help preserve Quay County history, QCS is seeking other individuals, age 90 or older, with backgrounds in the community. Contact Managing Editor Ryn Gargulinski at: