Velma Irene, 102, beloved mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and great-great grandmother, died the day after Valentine’s Day in Carson City. Born in Brownstown, Illinois, she was the fifth child of James Harmon and Dora Lee (nee Workman) Ledbetter. She often shared childhood stories about walking to school with cardboard pieces stuffed in her worn shoes, watering a truck garden the size of a city block by hand with her brother Bob, and stopping by Uncle Tubby’s ice shack for a refreshing sliver of ice on those hot Illinois days.
She loved when her aunts arrived by horse buggy to visit on the porch and drink mason jars of sweet tea. She may or may not have pulled a prank on her principal and snuck homemade blackberry wine from her father’s clay jug.
Velma was active in school sports and excelled at calisthenics, running, roller-skating, bicycle riding, soft ball, swimming, and basketball. In high school, she was captain of the girls’ basketball team. Lester (Leck as she called him), her oldest brother and father figure, made sure she had the books she needed and a warm coat to weather those cold walks to and from school. Leck also inspired her life-long love of motorcycles. Velma often rode in his motorcycle’s side car.
At 16, Velma went to Indiana to help her sister Frances with her baby. Here, she hung out with her brother-in-law’s family, and met her one true love, Alfred Herschel Thornburgh. On July 11, 1936, Al and Velma married in Terre Haute, Indiana. Soon they gave birth to Arthur Eugene, born with complications after a difficult birth. Velma devoted the next eight years to Gene’s care, often walking miles to seek treatments for her son at a time when strangers would tell
her to ‘just put him in an institution.’ Velma and Al designed and built a stroller for him that allowed him to go everywhere with them until his death at age 8.
In 1945, Velma gave birth to a daughter, Sandra Lee, and in 1949, a son, Ralph Hershel. During this time, the couple ran a roller rink. Velma also worked as a telephone operator and in a factory that made women’s pantyhose. During World War II, the factory joined the war effort and Velma found herself sewing parachutes for airborne soldiers.
In the early 50s, Velma and Al moved their family west to Oakland, California, where Al worked for RCA Victor as a chef. Velma was a supreme homemaker, tending children, gardening, sewing clothing, cooking meals, perfecting pie making, balancing her checkbook, and keeping her house spotless. On the weekends, they enjoyed picnicking and family games of ball or cards. During this time, she attended classes at the junior college.
When Al became a minister, Velma became a minister’s wife and expertly executed the varied duties that role entailed, including leading women’s groups at church, teaching Sunday School, organizing socials, assisting at weddings, printing bulletins, visiting parishioners, etc. There were times when she wrote and delivered her own sermons. The couple served Methodist churches in several of California’s gold country towns, including Cone Grove, Los Molinos, Portola, Dos Palos, Morgan Hill, Coulterville, and Jamestown.
Al and Velma also opened a restaurant in Portola, while he ministered there, where Velma made all the food and baked pies fresh each day. She ran the restaurant for three years. Later, she worked in a deli where she made huge vats of potato and pasta salads and every kind of sandwich one can imagine. For many years, she worked in school cafeterias.
After Al’s death in 1997, Velma continued to serve the Methodist church in Jamestown until 2004, when she moved to Northern Nevada to live with her daughter. Here, she impacted the communities of Silver Springs, Fernley, Dayton, and Carson City through her participation in church and local senior centers. She loved a good game of Bingo, making food especially deviled eggs, and encouraging and supporting Sandra’s work as a piano teacher. Just
as recently as 2021, Velma performed in the First Christian Church’s Christmas Eve program where she sang and played percussion instruments.
Velma adored her pets and took pleasure in caring for them. She loved her family greatly and showed interest, joy, and pride in her many grandchildren’s endeavors.
In her later years, Velma celebrated each birthday with a motorcycle ride that she would talk about for the following year. Last April, she made nationwide news as she rode on the back of a Harley for her 102nd birthday with a parade of motorcyclists. The event was organized by the Templar Crusaders Motorcycle Club of Northern Nevada. This “motorcycle mama” departed two months shy of her 103rd birthday. She was looking forward to one more ride.
Up until the very end, Velma valued always looking her best. She dressed for each day in a blouse, sweater, slacks, knee-high hose, silk scarf, and matching jewelry. She called her hair her crowning glory and refreshed her lipstick throughout the day.
Velma is survived by her daughter, Sandra Lee Bell of Dayton, NV, her son Ralph Hershel Thornburgh and his wife Carolyn of Lebanon, TN, nine grand children, twenty great grandchildren, and five great-great grandchildren the youngest, Arina Rose, born the night before Velma’s death.
Nevada Funeral Services of Carson City and Crown Hill Cemetery of Indianapolis are overseeing arrangements. A service will be held in Indiana on March 4, 2023. Celebration of Life services in Fernley and Carson City will be held at a future date. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Veteran’s Guest House of Reno.
When asked what helped her live a long, active life by Jessica Garcia of the Nevada Appeal, Velma said “I never smoke, I never drink, and I never run ‘round with dirty, old men. What a life I’ve had.” She will be dearly missed.