Thelma Mae Serl
We all get to choose what will and won’t define us. Thelma Mae Serl contracted polio at the age of one month and spent her life in a wheelchair, depending on others to take her where she needed to go.
Lucy (Cole) Simmons shares, “Never mind all that, she was self-confident, always upbeat, always happy, always smiling and cheering up the depressed, disillusioned, and the unsure of themselves people around her. I was one of those people.”
Lucy had dropped out of school but knew she needed to reconnect. When she heard Thelma’s roommate had moved out, she asked if she could move in, and Thelma agreed. “What a blessing that was in my life,” writes Lucy. With Thelma as her friend and teacher, she went from being depressed to having (almost) too much fun!
Thelma was born August 13, 1927, in Nebraska to Joe and Margaret Serl, the oldest of four children. Her family moved to Riverton, Wyoming where through sheer determination she finished elementary and high school. She did her first year of undergraduate work at Dakota Bible College in Arlington, South Dakota before moving to Boise in 1948 to attend Boise Bible College.
While at BBC, nothing held her back. In addition to her course load, she was actively involved in a mission to shut-ins. Being a good writer, she enjoyed sending encouraging letters to those who were ill or confined at home. She served as secretary for the Black Hills Christian Service Camp. Summers were spent serving in daily Vacation Bible School or traveling for the college, sometimes weeks at a time. She had a beautiful singing voice and sang with the “Pleiades Girls Ensemble” that traveled for the college. She also traveled with a gospel team that presented the Word in song and preaching. Even after graduation, she sang with the college choir and other singing groups.
Life After Boise Bible College
Part of BBC’s second graduating class, in 1952, she was its third graduate. Her class included Viva L. (Nance) Marriott, and Howard Waugh, the first male graduate (three of BBC’s first four grads were females; Norma Perry was the first grad in 1950). Thelma was the first to receive a four-year Bachelor of Arts degree; the others had received a Bachelor of Sacred Literature up to that point. She stayed on as a professor, teaching Greek, English Grammar and Composition, Typing, Bible Geography, Shorthand and Business, and Christian Education. Because the salaries were so minimal in the early years, she also worked as a secretary for a Boise attorney. Many days, Bob Ballard would take her to work after morning classes and return to pick her up at 5:30 pm.
A quote in the “Boise Bible College Prophecy” from the class of 1956 made this observation: “Thelma Serl was the most sought after girl in that institution. More boys had their arms around her than any other girl. The excuse she used was that of having them lift her out of her wheelchair!” She was always known for her sweet spirit and sense of adventure. Self-pity and doubt were not part of her character.
Friday nights, Lucy would walk to Thelma’s job and they would go to the Idanha Hotel and get a coke and a baked potato for $1.00. Lucy tells stories of how strong Thelma’s arms were from wheeling her non-electric wheelchair. She would crawl up on the kitchen counter to wash dishes. Thelma was a great cook and they had students over nearly every weekend for homemade fudge and popcorn. Lucy remembers, “This was a happy time in my life.” Thelma lived to care for others.
Bill Fleenor would also give Lucy and Thelma rides around town in his old car, which he fondly named “Thelmodzo.” Thelma often helped him with his homework, especially Greek.
In 1968 she moved to Paradise, CA where she operated a secretarial service and was active in Paradise Christian Church. She used her beautiful voice to sing on special occasions. She never spoke of her childhood, but instead focused on the moment. Lucy remembers Thelma living out the Scripture, “This is the day the Lord has made; rejoice and be glad in it.” Her friends remember her for her servanthood, scholarship, friendship, and witness. All the values – humility, scholarship, community, and innovation – that Boise Bible College holds to today. Thelma died on September 1, 1990.