Saltwater Portrait

Rehoboth's Thelma Weiss keeps on moving

Celebrates 100th birthday with family and friends
April 29, 2014

Thelma Weiss still remembers the cold, North Dakota winters of her youth. When a blizzard rolled in, she could hardly see in front of her.

“I remember my father would tie a rope from the house to the barn or else the winter blizzards could blow you away,” Weiss said.

Weiss long since traded the harsh winters of North Dakota for the sunny shores of Rehoboth Beach, with a few years of living in the nation's capital in between. At 100, she gets around better than some people half her age, and she still lives on her own.

“I just keep moving. You have to use it or lose it,” the spry centenarian said.

Born Thelma Sundt in 1914, Weiss was one of nine children born to hardy Norwegian immigrants Gust and Theoline Sundt. They were homesteaders who worked the land while building a home and community. With the help of neighbors, she said, her father built their family home and barns that housed the family's cows and farming equipment.

The family harvested wheat during North Dakota's short growing season. The petite Weiss did her share of work on the farm walking behind a one-horse plow starting as a 10-year-old. Every chance she got, would ride her buckskin horse, Babe, either for pleasure or to herd the families eight cows from one pasture to another.

“Everything was done by horse,” she said.

Trips to town were done in a horse-drawn carriage – or a sleigh when the North Dakota winters set in. She was in her teens when the family got its first tractor and its first car soon followed.

At 18, she met and soon married her late husband, Arthur.

“I can just see it that day. It was during a church picnic at the Knife River Lutheran Church,” she said. A friend introduced them, and they married soon after.

Art worked in a print shop through the Great Depression – a job that eventually brought the family to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Government Printing Office.

In a home five blocks from the U.S. Capital, the couple raised their three children: Carol, Beckie and Gary.

“It was so close to the Capitol that if I had company, we could go up and sit on the steps,” Weiss said.

Weiss got a job as a receptionist in a doctor's office, a job she kept until her mid-80s.

Family at the beach

The family first vacationed in Dewey Beach in the 1960s. Daughter Carol had married Lee Jones and his family bought some property after the storm of 1962 that destroyed the Boardwalk and wiped out many Dewey Beach homes.

“Property was cheap and fee simple,” Carol said. “We all came here quite a bit.”

Weiss said she always enjoyed going to the beach and relaxing with friends and family, and continued to do so after Art passed away in 1983.

When Carol and Lee moved to Rehoboth Beach permanently in 1996, Weiss wasn't far behind.

She retired from her doctor's office job and moved to Eagle's Landing in 2000, close to Carol and Lee.

Two years later, daughter Beckie Healey moved to nearby Lewes.

Weiss's days have slowed, but the wiry centenarian stays busy with a patio garden and her faithful cat, Patches.

She plans to plant some begonias when the weather warms up; an indoor fern joins her potted plants adding texture to the patio garden. She still goes to the beach when company is in town, but not as often as she used to. A couple of times of year, she said, she treats herself to Thrasher's french fries – without the vinegar.

About 50 people joined Weiss April 19 for a birthday party and celebration of her life. She was joined by her three children, six grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild, an eight-month-old named Levi.

“They're all great kids,” Weiss said. “We've been blessed because the whole family has been healthy.”

Good health has followed her for 100 years and by all indications will continue to do so.

She looks back fondly at her days growing up in North Dakota – a simpler time when she rode her horse in the pasture and walked to school a quarter mile away. Although a car trip would not be easy and there is a chance the North Dakota landscape may have changed, she said she is determined to return to her family farm.

“I'd like to go back one of these days, just to see,” she said.