Brenda Thomas started her Wednesday like any other. She sewed quilts. This time, her fellow Oak Hammock retirement community residents lined the hall to the sewing room, waiting to wish her a happy 100th birthday.
She said her Norwegian blood and family roots in Buenos Aires, Argentina helped her reach the century mark.
Her advice as a centenarian: take life one day at a time.
Thomas, a Gainesville resident, joined the less than 1% of people who are 100 years old June 30, celebrating with a reception at her retirement home.
About 60 people sat at tables adorned with red, white and blue balloons while friends and family shared stories about Thomas. She traveled, she sewed and she never stopped learning.
Before the reception, she went through a scrapbook and reminisced on her time in Gainesville.
Thomas was born June 30, 1922, in Buenos Aires. When World War II reached a point of low intensity, she traveled to the U.S. to attend college. She was lucky to travel by plane because torpedoes hit the boat carrying her belongings, she said.
She graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1945, she said, and stepped off the train and into Gainesville with her husband, Billy, in 1946. She saw the White House Hotel, which no longer exists, one restaurant and a movie theater, she said.
“Everybody knew everybody when you met them downtown,” she said.
Thomas got a job as a travel agent during a time when women did not traditionally work. She took her children around the world to places like China, Turkey and her home country, Sharron Cochran, Thomas’ 73-year-old daughter said.
Thomas also helped Oak Hammock residents plan trips around Florida during her first five years with the community. She sewed clothes for herself and her children and taught whoever showed interest, she said.
“My mother has always been an inspiration,” Cochran said. “She’s always done a lot for other people.”
Thomas taught her other daughter, Valerie Thomas, how to sew when she was 9 years old.
Valerie, 62, marveled at how healthy her mother looked Wednesday. She still harnessed her trademark energy at the milestone age, she said.
Valerie realized how extraordinary it was for her mother to attend college for four years after they traveled to Argentina together, she said. Her mom was the only one of her friends who stayed in university for more than one year.
Thomas also volunteered at Tacachale, a developmental disability center. Her middle daughter, Lynn, who is mentally disabled, lives at the facility. Thomas wanted to give the residents the opportunity to do something they weren’t able to do — buy something.
Her mother worked with retailers to donate inexpensive items such as costume jewelry for residents to have the shopping experience, Valerie said.
Thomas is one of the sweetest people Pat Harden, an 87-year-old Oak Hammock resident, has ever met. He said even just a short conversation proves to be enlightening.
“The world needs a lot more people like her,” Harden said.
Contact Jackson Reyes at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes.
Jackson Reyes is a third-year journalism major and one of the assistant sports editors for the Spring 2023 semester. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and tweeting about Caleb Williams.