Ursuline Academy went all out at the beginning of October to celebrate a staffer’s birthday.
After all, it was Thelma Hartnett’s 100th birthday.
Ursuline Academy alumnae, students and friends waved to their favorite centenarian via a parade of decorated cars on Ursuline’s front campus. They delivered cards, flowers, proclamations from the City of Kirkwood and a state representative, and sent their well wishes for Hartnett, who just began her 55th year at Ursuline Academy. She proclaimed it herself with a big smile — “I’m 100 years old” — and, sitting in a big white chair, said she felt like a queen.
Hartnett taught at Ursuline from 1965 to 1992, when she began working in the Alumnae Office, a position she still holds today. She is known as the face of Ursuline Academy for countless alumnae and is devoted to raising funds for student tuition assistance.
On Sept. 1, 1965, Hartnett began teaching typing and shorthand at Ursuline. Today, she continues her work of personal outreach, asking supporters to be generous to the Ursuline Academy scholarship fund. Due to the pandemic, she’s now working from her dining room table at her home in Webster Groves.
Hartnett writes an estimated 3,000 handwritten letters to alumnae every year. She also makes countless phone calls to alumnae, thanking them for their support. And she’s adapted to the use of computers.
Only within the past few years did she stop playing golf on Mondays due to failing eyesight. Well into her 90s, Hartnett traveled several times a year, cut her own lawn and walked every morning before work. A few years ago, she retired from more than 30 years of service as an usher at the Fox Theatre.
Hartnett grew up in a rural area, and had a horse named Sam that she rode three miles a day at age 6 to a country school. In 1942, she graduated from George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tenn. She married after her senior year, and the college offered to pay for her to continue her education so she could teach at the college level. But instead, she lived with her family in Arkansas and worked on a military base while her husband served during World War II, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in Europe under Gen. George Patton. She moved to San Antonio for a year while her husband recovered from injuries in the war. His doctor prescribed two things: Learn to walk and have a drink every day.
At Ursuline, she initiated a course on personal finance. She taught the girls how to save money. Last summer, Hartnett attended a Muny production where two alums came up to her and said that they are secure financially today because of that class.
She said she taught her students that once they graduated from college, they “must manage to put away about $10 a month, just a little bit. Then as their salary increased, they should increase the amount. Here I am at 100 and I have no money problems at all, and look what I did.”
She never had a principal counter her teaching methods. The person who helped her the most was her first principal. Hartnett was nervous because she hadn’t taught before. The principal’s advice, taken from a statement attributed to Ursulines’ founder St. Angela Merici, was treat your students as your daughters. “That’s all it took,” Hartnett said. “I had no problems teaching. I had no run-ins with students. I had a real successful time.”
Hartnett, who is Episcopalian, starts and ends every day with a prayer, which she also did with her children. She appreciates Ursuline Academy because it does the same thing. “You can’t tell me that if a girl does it for four years in high school it doesn’t make a difference,” Hartnett said.
An active life
Hartnett said there’s not a day that she’s had an ache or pain. Her doctor attributes it to her 2-mile walks and other ways of keeping active, she said.
A favorite walking spot is Blackburn Park in Webster Groves where she purchased a marker for one of the benches in memory of her late husband, Godfrey, and their dog, Victor.
Hartnett has attended countless weddings and celebrations of students and gets telephone calls every day from alumnae. Former students greet her when they see her, and “that means a lot to me now,” she said.
Hartnett was part of a Monday Club in Webster Groves that met weekly. One of those friends is 106. Travel was a big part of her life too, with a trip to Germany her favorite.
Her church, Emmanuel Episcopal, did a parade for her on her birthday, Sept. 26, and her neighborhood honored her in early October.
She has two children, Jan Lewis who lives in California, and Rev. John Hartnett, a retired Episcopal priest in New Jersey, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her son just donated money to Ursuline, and she said, “I trained him right.”
>> About Ursuline and Thelma
Ursuline Academy of St. Louis, founded in 1848 and under the sponsorship of the international network of Ursuline Sisters, is a private Catholic college preparatory high school for young women. Ursuline Academy educates students for Christian living and leadership in a global society, nurtures the development of the whole person and her potential, and cultivates within its students a spirit of lifelong service through its motto of serviam, “I will serve.”
It’s biggest booster is Thelma Hartnett, who has been there for a third of the school’s history.
In 2017, Ursuline Academy opened a new academic building that included four science labs, a dance studio, a music studio and an elevator. During the capital campaign, Hartnett was left speechless when the Ursuline Academy administration asked her if she could lend her name to the building, now named Hartnett Hall. Her own generosity ingrained a spirit of philanthropy and service at Ursuline from freshmen to alumnae. “When I give money to others, it makes me feel good, and I really want to feel good!” Hartnett said at the time.
To see a video of Hartnett’s birthday parade, visit bit.ly/35LkiVN.
For information on Ursuline Academy, visit www.ursulinestl.org.