'Country Girl' recalls her brush with fame

Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Thelma Hartley as 'Country Girl'

"I have a way with all kinds of people," says Thelma Howard Hartley.

Hartley, 76, says she's enjoyed every moment of her long and varied life. She was born on a farm about five miles west of Chapel Hill. Her family raised everything: hogs, cattle, chickens, and all kinds of crops. She remembers them selling 30 dozen eggs a week.

It was a long time before electricity came to the farm, but they had a battery-powered radio and young Thelma loved to listen to the country songs. She soon discovered that she had a knack for remembering the words and music -- if she heard a new song during the week, by Saturday night she could sing it and accompany herself on the guitar.

So as not to bother her parents, Thelma would practice her songs sitting on a tree stump down by the creek. She dreamed of singing at the Grand Ole Opry, but the farthest she got was playing at a mini Opry in Lewisburg that they called Harmony Hall.

It was the creation of the WJJM radio station. Upstairs in the Maccabee Hall on a Saturday night, the room would be packed as people listened to the entertainers they had heard on the radio during the week. They called Thelma "Country Girl."

"You don't never get that out of you," she confides.

But Thelma's performing days ended in 1953 when she married Bill Hartley and started a life of adventure as an Army wife and mother. Overseas postings in those days were for three years, so Bill would go on his own for the first year and Thelma would join him for the last two. That's how she got to live in France, Japan and Taiwan. Three of her six children were born in Tennessee and one in California, but one was born in France and another in Japan. She made a total of six ocean crossings, including one on a boat that took 14 days.

"I didn't like that too much!" Thelma laughs.

Always there were one or more young children in tow. Her first baby was just four and a half months old when she moved to France in 1954.

"I always had to take care of myself -- that's what a military wife learns," she says, adding proudly, "They call me 'Army Strong.'"

Of all the places she's lived, Thelma says she would most like to return to Taiwan, though she realizes it's changed a lot since she was there in the '50s when there were almost no paved roads and a live-in maid cost $25 dollars a month.

Bill's next overseas posting would have been Ethiopia and Thelma was looking forward to living there, but he decided to retire after 20 years, three months and 13 days in the Army. The traveling days were over.

They had built their house on Lawrence Avenue in Chapel Hill so they had a place ready to settle down. She keeps up with some of their buddies from the Army and notes that none of the couples have moved from the house they retired into.

"If I felt like it I would love to travel again," she says wistfully.

But her health isn't good these days. She even had to give up line dancing, another of her pleasures, when she got back trouble a few years ago.

Thelma's not one to sit at home, though, even if she's not feeling well. "I've been a volunteer all my life," she says.

Thelma still works about 30 hours a week at the Senior Center in Chapel Hill. She also reads "continually," books and several newspapers each day to keep up with current events, making up foost time when she was raising the children and didn't get to read.

She says they "lived poor" most of the time and the hardest years were when she was home alone and only heard from Bill by letter every two weeks or so.

"I never did know if he was living or dead," she said in an interview on the occasion of their 54th wedding anniversary last year. One of their sons was in the military for 10 years, and they have a grandson at Fort Knox now.

Thelma says she was shocked when she first went overseas and saw signs saying "U.S. Go Home" and she takes our freedom and democracy very seriously. She never missed voting in an election, adding, "I voted by mail all the time I was overseas."

This year she wants to vote for McCain, because, she says, "he's the only one who knows and understands the military."

She wouldn't mind if more of her grandchildren (she has a total of 10) or great-grandchildren (five so far) went in the service, asserting, "I'm all for it."