For busy Poway senior, turning 106 is ‘normal’
By Emily Sorensen
Living to be 100 years old is a milestone not many people get to boast about. But for one Poway woman, 100 was old news as she celebrated her 106th birthday Saturday, Nov. 24 at the Poway Healthcare Center.
Leola “Lee” Thomas was born Nov. 24, 1906 in Nebraska City, Nebraska. One of six children, Thomas’ father made headstones and buried the deceased, and her mother was a housewife. “My father planted them, as I say,” said Thomas. “He put them where they were supposed to be.”
Thomas’ long life has been an interesting one, watching the changes from 1906 to 2012. “She’s young at heart,” said Sheri Berardino, Thomas’ great-niece.
Thomas recalled being young in the roaring ‘20s. “My sister and I would go dancing every night,” said Thomas. Thomas also fondly remembered the first time she was able to vote, when she was 21 in 1928. “That was a big spot in my life, that I got to vote for the president,” said Thomas. The president who won that first election Thomas voted in was Herbert Hoover.
Thomas worked as a seamstress for most of her life, though she did work a summer job for a telephone company when she was younger. Her mother made her quit her telephone job to work at a factory, sewing. “I sewed at home, and I sewed at work,” said Thomas. A talented seamstress, Thomas sewed for herself and her family as well. “My mother, when she was a child, would draw or find a picture of a dress she wanted, and would take it to Aunt Lee, and she would be able to make it,” said Berardino.
Thomas eventually moved to Los Angeles, working in the garment district. “I worked way down on 1st Street, and lived on 17th,” said Thomas. She often sewed men’s dress shirts and suits, as well as women’s clothing. She attended night classes at UCLA in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s, to learn more about sewing. “The teacher thought so much of me, she made me a pattern that could be used for any size,” said Thomas.
When she first moved to Los Angeles, with her first husband, Pell Beason, the couple slept in their car in MacArthur Park. “When you find yourself in a block, you’ve got to knock yourself out,” said Thomas, advice she’s always tried to follow. During World War II, she lived in a huge house in Los Angeles with numerous family members, including over 15 children.
She and Beason divorced after nine years of marriage, and years later, she married her second husband, Lee Thomas, who she was married to for 27 years until his death.
In 1989, Thomas moved to Rancho Penasquitos to live with Berardino’s family, then moved to Vista to live with her niece, Berardino’s mother. After her niece died, Thomas moved to the Poway Healthcare Center in 2006.
Even at the center, Thomas keeps busy, playing bingo, going to church services and enjoying trips out with the center. “Whatever they’re doing here, she participates,” said Berardino, who visits often. “She’s never in her room. Whenever I call, they try to direct me to her room and I tell them not to bother, since she’s never in it.”
As for being 106 years old, Thomas doesn’t think it is all that extraordinary. “It’s just like a normal life,” said Thomas. “You go to bed at night, and you get up in the morning.”
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