Volunteerism is alive and well in Elmira.
Last Election Day, Hazel Thompson needed a ride to her polling place, which was unusual. She had decided to downsize a bit after her birthday in September, and selling her car was part of the plan. After all, she’s 98.
She had always driven whenever she needed to, and walked whenever she could. After she sold the car, she moved from her apartment to a place closer to the center of Elmira, within walking distance of her many volunteer activities and the grocery store – but not her new polling place, at the Grace Episcopal Church over on West Church Street.
Hazel called the Board of Elections to ask for a lift, and Chemung County Legislator Rodney Strange, the county Republican chairman, showed up. He drove her to the church and back and posted a photo of the two of them on Facebook, explaining that he wasn’t going to let her miss a chance to vote. Hazel had told him that in all her years of eligibility, she had failed to cast a ballot only once, in 1988, when she was hospitalized in a coma with a potentially fatal infection called strep septicemia that doctors thought would take her.
“They wrote me off,” she said recently of that period of illness. “But the good Lord was good to me.”
(Full disclosure: I volunteer with Hazel at the Clemens performing arts Center, and although newspaper style calls for use of the subject’s last name after the first reference, I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling her Thompson, and readers who know her at all probably wouldn’t like it either.)
Until Election Day, Strange knew Hazel only by her reputation – the volunteer who seemed to be everywhere. He said that when he walked into the polling place with her, although it was her first time there, “People knew her and were very excited to have her there.”
By the time he drove her home, he knew her, too. And to know her, even for a little while, is to like her.
“She’s amazing. You can’t get any better than Hazel,” said Venitra (Vee) Clark, who retired in March after 38 years as Director of House Operations at the Clemens Center. One of her responsibilities was to oversee volunteers like Hazel, who usher and handle various duties during shows, fundraisers and other events.
“Hazel works about 99 percent of our events,” Clark said. “Not just shows, but all the events.”
During shows at the center’s Powers Theater, Hazel can be found at the window of the coat-check room, her post since 1985. She’s the white-haired woman, all 4-foot-10 and 115 pounds of her, with the broad smile as she greets guests. For Elmira Little Theatre and other performances in Mandeville Hall, she’ll take tickets at the door, always with that same warm smile and often with a big hug.
“She knows everybody and always looks for a hug, and they always look for a hug,” said Clark. “She volunteers everywhere, so she double dips, you might say. People see her wherever they go.”
Hazel has lived in Elmira since 1949, when she and her second husband, William Thompson, moved to the city. She and her first husband, Leonard Bolton, had divorced. She has outlived both of them.
The first marriage produced her only child, Lenny Bolton, who is 63 now. He lives in Elmira and works as a machinist at the Hilliard Corp.
“She’s a great mom. I love her to death,” said her son. “She’ll do anything for anybody. She just loves to help people. She’s kind, thoughtful, very giving.”
A guitarist, he played in a band as a teenager and says that his mother was the band mom, and more.
“She was our roadie,” he said. “She would pick everybody up, load everything into the station wagon, take us to the high school dance or whatever, and then she’d come back, pick us up, load up again and drop everybody off.
“She’s been like that her whole life.”
Hazel was born on a farm in Pawlet, a small town in Vermont, on September 5, 1917, one of 10 children and the only one still alive. She earned a nursing certificate after high school and has used those skills all her life, on the job and as a Red Cross volunteer.
In 1969, the Red Cross honored her for more than 100,000 hours of volunteer work over the previous 20 years. She served at national disasters in South Carolina, Maine, Pennsylvania, and right here at home after the Flood of 1972.
Hazel lost her job as an industrial nurse at Kennedy Valve after the flood. She took off a week from work to help at a Red Cross first-aid station, and when she went back to her job she found out she’d been let go.
“They told me I said I’d take volunteering over my job. I never said that.”
She got another job soon after, as the first female nurse at the Elmira Correctional Facility. She retired in 1985.
The complete list of volunteer work Hazel has performed seems endless, so there’ll be no attempt here to compile it. But it should be noted that in 2010 she received the prestigious Jefferson Award for Public Service.
She’s been a member of the Ladies Auxiliary at American Legion Post 443 in Elmira for 67 years, serving as president, secretary and treasurer at different times. She’s also a past president of the county auxiliary unit.
At the Legion, she helps serve meals on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. Also, the post treats Arctic League volunteers to a free breakfast on Christmas Day, and Hazel and other helpers start working at 5:30 a.m.
She is active in AARP Chapter 276 and edits its newsletter, and she’s helped during all 25 years of the Chemung County Senior Games.
At her previous apartment, she delivered the Star-Gazette to her neighbors in the building. Years ago, as a volunteer, she worked with five other senior citizens to write the Senior Desk reports for the paper. Then, after eight or nine years, the Senior Desk was turned over to a young reporter.
“He just told us we didn’t know how to write,” Hazel said. “None of us were too happy about it.”
Hazel says volunteering helps keep her feeling young – or at least a lot younger than 98.
“I take one day at a time and stay active,” she said.
Most of her relatives have lived into their 90s, and an aunt made it to 103, so she has longevity on her side.
As a project at church, Hazel recently put together a list of five wishes for the future. Four of them had to do with taking care of herself or giving back to her community. Fifth: When her time comes, she is donating her body to the Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse.
“As soon as I pass,” she said, “within 15 minutes I’m on my way to Syracuse.”
Giving back, right to the end.
story and photos by Roger Neumann