OKEECHOBEE — Marty Thomas does not feel inspiring but has always made a point to help people who cross her path. Originally from Pahokee, Thomas moved to Okeechobee when she was 14. She came to live with her cousin, Dr. David Bleech and his family.
After she married her first husband, they moved to Palm Beach County, and she went to work for the school board.
Although she had worked for Raulerson Department Store beginning at age 14, she had no experience with any type of office work. “The head of human resources hired me because in all the years he had been there, I was the first person who ever applied that was a native of Palm Beach County. I found that to be hilarious!” She went to work in the ITV Center which is where channel 42 is now. “We literally built that building from the ground up.”
When the couple’s first child was born in 1968, they decided they did not want to raise a family in the city, and they moved back to Okeechobee. A few years later, they had their son.
Thomas went to work for Judge G.E. Bryant in 1974. “I started on April Fools Day, a very appropriate day to go to work in the court system!” She served as his judicial assistant. “Back then, they gave us a title rather than a pay raise.” After Judge Bryant retired, she went to work for Judge William Hendry and worked for him until he retired. All the judges in this area already had assistants, so she looked to the coast to find a job and found one with Judge Tom Walsh.
She spent the next 10 years commuting back and forth but did not mind the drive. “I liked my time in the car alone in the early hours. It was a good time for me to talk to God.” The judge allowed her to the freedom to work hours that suited her. She went in early in the morning and was able to leave before the rush hour in the afternoon. In September 2005, she retired but often regrets it. “I miss it every day.” It had gotten to the point where driving back and forth scared her. One day as she drove home, a box fell off a truck in front of her and hit her driver’s side mirror. “18 inches to the left, and it would have hit me in the face.”
She and her husband spent seven years living in the Keys. “We bought a little place on Little Torch Key and spent some time just enjoying life.” When Hurricane Irma hit, the storm put 39 inches of sludge in their downstairs enclosure, and they were uninsured. “We just said, ‘It’s time to go back to Okeechobee.’”
Thomas said she felt like her years in the court system were her best years. “It’s one of those things where you feel like if you have guided one person in a month’s time, you’ve been successful.” They had many horrible things come through their offices, but sometimes they were able to enjoy things like adoptions. “Little families were made/created and that was just beautiful.”
Even with the criminal cases, there were times she felt she made a difference in someone’s life even if only in a small way. One time a man she knew came in to court after he was arrested on a misdemeanor charge. “He was fined, not put in jail, but he didn’t have the money to pay the fine. He saw me in the office and came in and said he hated to ask but he needed $20 to make up the rest of the fine. In 1974, $20 was a lot of bucks! I told him I would give him the $20 but if he wasn’t back the beginning of the month to pay it back, it would break my heart.” The man did not disappoint her and was back the first of the month as promised. “It restored my faith in humanity. It was just one of the good things.”
Once, a young woman from Saint Petersburg came in. She had major issues with her drivers license. “She came into the office in a very offensive t-shirt, and it just rubbed me the wrong way.” She asked Thomas for help, but was told, “I can help you, but I’m just not going to.” The woman looked at Thomas like she did not understand what she was saying. “I said, ‘Your shirt is just so offensive that I can’t get past it.’” She told the woman if she would go home and change her clothes, Thomas would be glad to straighten things out for her. “Today, she’d probably have shot me, but back then, she just said, ‘Huh. OK.’ Then she went home and changed and came back, and I helped her.”
One time, a family from Jamaica came in. When they came to the country, they had to leave their children behind and were having trouble getting the paperwork completed to get the family back together. After explaining she was not a lawyer and could not give legal advice, she agreed to help. Within two weeks, the children, ranging in age from 3 to 11 years old, were here with their parents. “She dressed those kids up in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and marched them in to my office. Each one of them crawled up in my lap and gave me a hug and thanked me for helping them come home. I was in tears. It really touched my heart. Those are the kind of successes that make it all worth while.”
Thomas said her biggest challenge was her work with the American Cancer Society. She worked with them for about 30 years and held every office locally. She spent a lot of time training volunteers in fundraising techniques. “That was probably one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.” She always told her children she would probably never have a lot of money to give, but she could give her time to help eradicate cancer. She has many fond memories of the big fundraiser balls, dances and parties she helped organize.
Thomas’ husband passed away last year. Her daughter, Donna Dennison, is a teacher on the reservation, and her son, Gary Walker, spent 22 years in the Navy and now works for Amazon. She has eight grandchildren.