L-R, John and Pamela Footman celebrate their mother’s 90th birthday with scores of community members Nov. 12.
BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG –– People streamed in and out of a quaint little yellow house on 18th Avenue South. Some staying for hours while others just stopped by to wish Thelma Footman a happy 90th birthday.
“I just love children,” said Mrs. Footman.
And that she does. She gave countless hours of her time as a community organizer and volunteer for the welfare of all children, with a special focus on the voiceless African-American youths and young adults with disabilities.
Mrs. Footman is practically a legend at the City of St. Petersburg’s Park and Recreation Department and at All Children’s Hospital for her tireless efforts in helping the children in the community.
John and Pamela Footman celebrate their mother’s 90th birthday
Born in Mosely Corner, N. C., on November 10, 1926, to Faison and Annie Lee Shaw, she graduated high school in 1944 and attended Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. With an early childhood education degree in her hand, she married her college sweetheart, James Hannibal Walker.
After relocating to St. Petersburg and four years of marriage, Walker passed away. She was left to raise three-year-old Donald by herself. In 1953, she met and married Wallace Footman and four boys and a girl came from that union.
In the late 1950s, Mrs. Footman began her career as a preschool teacher with Happy Workers and Methodist Town Preschool.
“I started out in early childhood education, and some principals, teachers and doctors, I had a part in their education,” said Mrs. Footman.
In 1968 she embarked on a new career with the Parks and Recreation Department as a recreation aid at Campbell Park Recreation Center.
As her daughter Pamela Footman scurried about the house making sure every guess at the party was attended to, she stopped to reflect on how great her childhood was being the daughter of the queen of Parks and Rec.
“We had dance troupes; teas, fashion shows, spelling bees,” said Pamela, who stressed that her mother started it all.
“Miss Wildwood, Miss Bartlett Park, Miss Campbell Park, that was all my mother,” said the former Miss Bartlett Park 1977.
Mrs. Footman incorporated all types of activities for the children to keep them busy and out of trouble, such as how to wrap a mayday pole, would simulate a northern winter by having shaved ice delivered, even had fire hydrants opened up on hot days, but the fashions shows is what Pamela liked most.
“She used to go to the Colony Shop (clothing store) and they would loan the clothes and we would have a fashion show.”
Mrs. Footman secured trips to different exhibits around town, ice skating excursions, tutoring programs, square dancing, gymnastics, just to name a few. With each recreation center she worked at, she brought her ideas with her.
“She brought class and style to the black community,” said Pamela. “I don’t think she gets the recognition she deserves. Childs Park should be named after her.”
At the city, Mrs. Footman broke gender and color barriers by becoming the first African-American female director for many of the local recreation centers in the African-American community, as well as the predominately white recreation centers.
Maybe her love of children came from being an only child?
“I was lonesome but my dad and my mom loved me to death,” she said.
Whatever the reason, Mrs. Footman dedicated her life to the children of St. Pete.
“I loved every minute of it.”
Catherine Weaver has known Mrs. Footman since she was 14 years old.
“I was a juvenile delinquent,” laughed Weaver.
Weaver was court ordered to get a summer job, and ended up at Bartlett Park, now known as Frank W. Pierce Recreation Center. Seeing the artist in young Weaver, Mrs. Footman put her in the arts and crafts room.
“It taught me all the skills I have now. We did art shows, now I do festivals,” she said. “People would donate toilet tissue rolls, and I take simple things now and make gorgeous artwork that sells for hundreds of dollar. I started out just playing around in Parks and Rec.”
Weaver and Mrs. Footman worked together for 14 years.
“We won many contest, art shows and sandcastle contests. She supported me 100 percent. She’s like a second mother.”
Weaver now owns her an art studio and credits Mrs. Footman with turning her life around.
“She was a mother in the community. She saw the positive in the kids and she encouraged them. She was a role model.”
Even in retirement Mrs. Footman didn’t let grass grown under her feet. Being a board member and volunteer became a fulltime job.
“She’s been on everybody’s board,” stated Pamela, who revealed that Mrs. Footman was one of the first African Americans in the All Children’s Hospital Guild, which raises money for the hospital.
Being in the guild is where she and Elizabeth Hammer became fast friends. Mrs. Footman and Hammer’s mother, Betty Breedon, had been members of the guild together since the 1980s.
“Thelma was such a faithful member,” said Hammer. “They were my cheerleaders; it was always good to be in their company.”
Carol Russell and her daughter Rachael stopped by to wish their former All Children’s Hospital Guild member a happy birthday.
Carol is the second of three generations of guild members, and Mrs. Footman has been a friend to each one.
“She really blazed the trail for some of the younger woman,” stated Carol, who thanks Mrs. Footman for taking time to mentor her.
Longtime friend Watson Haynes II stopped by to visit and to read a proclamation from the Pinellas County Urban League where he is the president and CEO.
“She’s one of those people that commanded you attention, not demanded it,” he said.
Mrs. Footman recalled a group of young men using bad language until she stepped around the corner and they immediately hushed up.
“It made me feel so good, they had some respect,” she said.
Haynes said she “didn’t have to talk loud to get the attention of young people.”
Mrs. Footman has been a faithful member of First Baptist Institutional for many decades. She was even on the committee that selected their current pastor, the Rev. Dr. Wayne Thompson.
“I’ve been knowing her all my days,” said Rev. Thompson, 68. All my life she’s watch me at different stages.”
He recalled when Mrs. Footman was sent to Bartlett Park to help with integration.
“Being this age,” he said, “it’s still good to be able to see the ones that were making the major sacrifices on the first wave of integration. We don’t do a good enough job in celebrating people in this age category about what they meant to community.”
Unfortunately, room does not permit the listing of all her altruistic endeavors, but here are a few:
• Was an original member of the Ethnic Member of the Intersection, which was a part of the African American professionals in the field of Parks and Recreation that merged with Orange State Recreation after integration and is now called Florida Recreation Association
• Was an active member of the Community Camping Council for the state of Florida
• Community leader & member with the Community Alliance Bi-racial committee of St. Pete
•Was instrumental in establishing and organizing South St. Petersburg branch of the Special Olympics in the early 70s
• Initiated a fundraising program with the help of her sorority Iota Phi Lambda to establish the Ronald McDonald House of St. Petersburg
• Full-time volunteer for All Children Hospital, and a member of All Children’s Hospital Guild
• Former YWCA Board of Directors member for 20 plus years
• Contributed countless hours as a volunteer Precinct Deputy Poll worker for Pinellas County Board of Election
• Former Board member of the Boley Center
Former member of St. Petersburg City Beautiful Commissions
• As a member of Church Women United she supported the Christian values to support people in need
• Former member of the City of St. Petersburg Commission on Aging
• Leader of Zenith Security Auxiliary that made sure residents of Victoria Martin Nursing home had Christmas basket, supported Happy Workers and recovering vets at Bay Pines hospital
• 1981 recipient of the Susan B. Anthony award for Human Dignity for the countless hours dedicated to numerous community service programs