I recently found out about a very important woman in Walt Disney’s life, a woman most Disney fans have never heard of. Thelma Howard came into the Disney family’s life in 1951 – as their live-in housekeeper/cook. She would take care of the Disney family for the next 30 years.
Thelma was a lot like Walt, she grew up in the Midwest, smoked cigarettes, loved football and was a perfectionist. Walt described her as “the real-life Mary Poppins”, but she wasn’t necessarily a spoonful of sugar. She had lived a hard life and was a little rough around the edges, but she was devoted to the Disney Family and was a confidante to the children and grandchildren.
She also had a great relationship with Walt, Chris Miller (Walt’s grandson) said: “My grandfather had an incredible rapport with her. They seemed to share everything, from a sense of humor to their notions about what was happening with the kids and what was best for them.” Indeed, the entire family loved Thelma, or as they called her “Fou-Fou.”
Thelma made sure that the Disney’s were taken care of, down to the tiniest little detail. When Walt would come home from the Studio he would enter the house through the kitchen door. He would get two hot dog wieners from the refrigerator, giving one to Lady – their French Poodle, and keeping one for himself. The two would eat the hot dogs together, cold straight from the refrigerator. Thelma made it a point to always have a good supply.
Through the years Thelma would receive Disney stock as birthday and holiday gifts. By the time she retired in 1981 those gifts of stock had made her a millionaire, though Thelma didn’t know it. She had been told to hold on to the stock, she trusted the Disney’s and wouldn’t part with it.
Ten years after retirement, Thelma’s health was failing fast and soon she had to be admitted to a nursing home. Around that time, Diane noticed that she hadn’t received her usual Christmas card from Thelma and found her somewhat unkempt and not receiving the best of care. Thelma had kept an autographed picture of Walter and Lillian Disney in her room until it disappeared, another picture of was given to Thelma – but this one was kept hidden. In the meantime, Thelma was sent to another nursing home where she had a private room, and Diane visited often and sent fresh flowers each Monday.
When Thelma passed away in 1994, she was laid to rest in a pink casket at Forest Lawn, overlooking the Disney Studios. By the way, that Disney stock was valued at just under $9 million and was split equally between her son Michael and a charity to help poor and disabled children. I think that made Walt very proud.Share