Meet Thelma Kessler, defender of wild horses - and a survivor

On Wednesday morning, as I was sifting through my experiences, thoughts and opinions to figure out if any were interesting enough to become the subject of this column, the phone rang.

It was Thelma Kessler, and my problem was solved.

Thelma is 78 years old, and she's got a lot to say about a lot of things. So much so that we talked for nearly an hour.

The reason she called was simple. She was very upset about the shooting of three wild horses on Valentine's Day in Washoe County, and she wanted to do something about it.

She's putting up a $1,000 reward toward the capture of the people who shot them, and she wants other people to follow her example.

She's doing it not only because she loves animals, but because she figures the type of people who would shoot wild horses are capable of doing even worse things. They are going to keep killing, she said.

The money is a sacrifice ("I'm a little old lady on Social Security"), but it's worth it, she said.

Now, a lot of people are upset by the shooting of those horses, but not too many care so much that they would decide to do something about it.

I began asking more questions, not about horses but about Thelma Kessler, and her answers began to form a story far more interesting than the column I'd begun to write.

So allow me to introduce you to Thelma Kessler, a resident of Carson City for just eight months, a refugee from the Oregon coast, where it rains too much.

She said she's here to relax in her retirement, but Kessler isn't done fighting.

She grew up in California. Her father left when she was a baby, and her mother was interested only in parties. Between the ages of 2 and 13, she said, she was in 31 boarding homes. She ran away several times.

At 14, she told a judge about the mistreatment she'd experienced in those homes, and the judge agreed to her plea that she be allowed to live alone.

They put her in a hotel room, and Thelma raised herself with little supervision.

You can imagine the stories that came next. Even in the 1940s, there were temptations and pitfalls that could lure any teenager into trouble.

But the real story is that Thelma didn't fall into any of those traps. Somehow, she knew what was right and what was wrong, and there was no gray area.

That's what she's most proud of.

"Isn't that a miracle that I never got in any trouble?" she said.

Instead, she went to school at night and worked day jobs, including as a pharmacist's assistant.

She graduated and got married when she was 18 to a sailor. He was rough and mean, and she wouldn't stand for it. She ended the marriage in three days.

There are a lot of things she wouldn't stand for, no matter what it cost her.

When she was a teenager, a police officer picked her up in Venice, Calif., on the guise of giving her a ride to her home. He took her to a remote area by the oil derricks, put a gun to her head, and ordered her to take off her pants. She told him he'd have to pull the trigger. The cop relented.

Much of her life has been difficult. But not all of it.

"There's a happy part," she said.

When she was 21, she was working two jobs, one of them at a beach club in Santa Monica. She caught the eye of a millionaire's son. She dated him for 12 years and became a great friend of his entire family.

She lived the high life ... mink coats, diamonds, shopping at Sachs in Beverly Hills.

"For a gal that never had anything, that was really groovy," she said.

But she wouldn't marry him, wouldn't settle ... he was also an alcoholic.

Finally, she left that relationship. The man's father offered to write her a check to help her on her way, and she refused.

"I don't take money from people I like," she said.

That was more than five decades ago. Her former boyfriend still calls her and worries about her, and she resists his invitations to visit him on his yacht.

"I wouldn't take anything from him now that he's married," she said.

Thelma is healthy. She's seen a doctor just once in the past 25 years, after she was in a minor accident. She doesn't take any drugs, favoring herbs and vitamins.

"I won't even take an aspirin," she said.

Thelma spent much of her adult life protesting wherever she thought there was injustice. "Maybe I see the wrongs more than other people," she said.

She was a thorn in the side of county commissioners, federal agencies - anywhere she thought government was overstepping its bounds.

You already know why. When she sees something she doesn't like, she takes action. Which brings us back to the horses.

If you, too, want to do something about the shooting of the wild horses, you can reach Thelma at 884-1201. Her money will be added to a reward fund already established by the Wild Horse Preservation League, the Bureau of Land Management and others.

And that's the very short version of the Thelma Kessler story. She didn't intend to tell me her life story, nor was she seeking any sympathy. I found something inspiring in her story, and in that she hasn't stopped fighting for what she believes in.

And that's why I thought you should meet her, too.

• Barry Ginter is the editor of The Appeal. Reach him at 881-1221 or


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