Fall of 2011
“Will you love me if I only have one leg?” Thelma Willouer called. She was bleeding profusely and her leg was hanging only by a small muscle when she asked her husband Howard these words. They had just been thrown off a motorcycle and at first they hadn’t realized how serious the situation was. Howard quickly came to Thelma’s side, looking at her leg in disbelief. Then suddenly from nowhere there appeared a young serviceman by Thelma’s side. He told Thelma he had been trained as a medic and tied a tight tourniquet around her leg in an effort to control the bleeding. Thelma still claims this unknown man with the tourniquet must have been an angel or her first husband making a supernatural appearance in order to help her.
Thelma Walton Douglas Willouer was born on April 3, 1930 in Indianapolis, Indiana, but raised in the town of Remington. When she was 3, her mother left the family which included her newborn brother, Gene. So they all moved in with Thelma’s grandparents and their grandmother helped raise her and her brother. When Thelma was 6 she came down with black diphtheria and thought she was going to die. Her grandmother was the one to nurse her back to health. When Thelma was in 4th grade, her brother wanted a dog, but since Grandma was a meticulous cleaner, she wouldn’t allow it. Gene cried and cried until finally their dad decided to move out on their own… with the dog. So at 10 years of age, Thelma started taking care of the household, which included watching after her younger brother.
In high school, she got very sick again, this time with scarlet fever, but again she miraculously recovered. She soon fell in love with a guy she had known since 1st grade, Cary Douglas. Cary and Thelma graduated in May 1948 and were married in Sept 1948. By 1960, Thelma had 5 children and was having hip problems. After hip surgery, Cary wanted to take on another job to cover the costs of the hospital bill. But after only a few days of driving a forklift at a loading dock, Thelma received the stunning news that her husband Cary had been killed when he accidentally drove off the edge of the dock.
Many family members stepped in to help Thelma at this time of need. Her dad moved in to help full-time and her mother also moved in for a short time. Soon after this, Thelma had a brief marriage in the early sixties which took her to Lansdale, Pa. In 1964 after experiencing a rough marriage and divorce, she went to dinner at Trainer’s in Quakertown and met Howard Willouer. Howard had just returned that day from the Army, where he had spent time in Panama. The first words she uttered to Howard as he walked past her were, “You’d look a lot better without that mustache.”
Believe it or not, Howard seemed drawn to this outspoken woman and asked her to dance later that evening. They met in May of 1965 and were married in November of 1965. Thelma’s first formal introduction to Mennonites was when she met Howard’s parents, Howard M. and Maggie L. (Moyer) Willouer, former members of Salford Mennonite Church. Howard’s parents took a liking to Thelma and she later learned that his parents were “thrilled to death when [they] got married.” Howard explains, “I used to drink a lot, so [my parents] thought it would straighten me out.”
“Things were rough at first,” says Thelma of her early days with 5 kids and a new husband. But before they knew it, the children were growing up and moving away from home. Soon they found themselves with more free time to do things like motorcycle trips together.
In 1977, Thema and Howard were planning a vacation in Alabama and driving their cycle back from Paoli from a pre-trip tune-up. They were talking about their trip as they traveled together that day, when suddenly a car turned right in front of them and the car bumper hit Thelma’s leg. They both were sent flying off the cycle and soon Thelma realized the bottom part of her leg was only dangling from a tiny muscle. As she lay there, she remembers thinking about Totie Fields and how she had survived having her leg being removed due to diabetes. Soon she was rushed to the hospital and the doctors tried to pump her with blood and reattach her leg. They had to reconnect major arteries, make skin grafts to replace missing skin, and try to bring back a leg that had lost all sensation. She was in the intensive care unit for 5 days and Thelma was told she’d never walk. But, Thelma says, “The Lord had a hand on me and it was what saved me.” Howard adds, “The accident woke us both up. Before that, we were both Christians but mostly backsliders.”
Thelma had many surgeries and close calls while in the hospital. At one point she went into shock after her third surgery and the family thought they were going to lose her, but she had another blood transfusion and slowly recovered. But the biggest miracle occurred when the doctor noticed that she could move her knee on her injured leg. He showed the other doctors in amazement and they started Thelma on therapy to recover the use of her leg. Howard said, “She was in the hospital so long (10 weeks) that everybody had fallen in love with her and cried when she left.”
Soon after she came home, she began working again at Greene Tweed in Lansdale as a key punch operator and worked for 14 years after the accident. In 2004, while attending the funeral of Howard’s uncle, Leroy, the Willouers heard Gerry Clemmer preach for the first time. They were so impressed that Thelma said to Howard, “You used to be a Mennonite; let’s try it out.” They have been attending at Souderton Mennonite Church ever since.
Thelma has had some more complications in recent years with her back, due to her legs being uneven and wearing special shoes, but she still attends church with the help of a cane and makes all the meals at home. Thelma doesn’t deny that her life has been full of miracles, admitting to being like “a cat with 9 lives. So often people thought I was going to die.” Luckily for all of us, this generous and kind-hearted woman is still alive today.