Thelma Patricia Whalan died February 15, 2014, in Boston. She was 80 years old, and decisively fashionable. “May we never return to fig leaves,” she would say, admiring someone else’s stylish outfit. She was also homeless - although the last few years of her life, she'd been persuaded to live in the women's supported housing program at the Pine Street Inn shelter, where she could return each night to the same neat bed.
Mrs. Whalan felt that all citizens were required to earn their way, and insisted that paying rent to Pine Street was her civic obligation. She'd earned her way earlier in life by selling patriotic poems on the streets of Manhattan, and patriotic souvenir postcards in Harvard Square. The staff at Pine Street got their poems and postcards for free.
In Mrs. Whalan’s middle-class childhood, there was a suburban house, a summer cottage, piano lessons. The memories were fond. After her mother died, she cared for her father until young adulthood, when — as she described it — she was “kidnapped” to a famous psychiatric hospital. It was her first psychotic break. That was where, as a patient, she met her future husband, and also developed her life-long hatred of psychiatrists.
After their discharge, she and her husband lived together in the Boston suburbs for years. Then he died. The direct line from that event to homelessness was not clear. But the shelters became her home. She was sharply judgmental and sometimes delusional about others, but also generous; climbing into the top bunk until she was in her seventies so that other women could have the bottom. And she never lost her sense of fashion, culling cashmere outfits out of clothing bins.
For decades, to the dismay of shelter staff and advocates, Mrs. Whalan eluded more permanent attempts to house her. She insisted she would only live in a nice apartment near Symphony Hall. At first that seemed mysterious. But maybe permanent housing would have felt like being kidnapped again. She seemed to prefer her difficult freedom: paying rent in the shelter, playing Mozart every morning on the day hall piano, and proudly mailing her patriotic poems to Presidents Bush 41 and 43.
To the end, she was strongly conservative. When she encountered strangers in the shelter’s hall, she greeted them with a proprietary question. “You’re such a peach,” she would say politely. “But are you a Kennedy?”
Did you know Thelma Patricia Whalan? Share your memories in the comments section.
This segment aired on April 14, 2015.