Leona Thompson

Honored by:Lee Ann & Joyce Banaszak
Brick location:C:25  map

Leona Thompson (1904- )

Born into the middle western Cult of True Womanhood --where women were raised to be pious, pure, domestic, and submissive -- Leone carved her own niche and thereby enriched the lives of many.

Her mother died in a traumatic fire when Leona, the eldest of five children, was 9 years old. The youngsters were parceled out to relatives by their father and never again lived together as a family for any length of time. Leona became the one person who kept them all in touch with each other. She still is the family focal point.

On her own at 16 with only an elementary school education, she found work as a housekeeper for parish priests and dreamed of being a nurse. But admission to nursing school was not possible then without a high school diploma and money for the tuition. Leona convinced a nursing school to let her enroll if she could pass the high school examinations entitling her to get the diploma she didn't have. Scrimping every penny and studying every available hour for the next four years, she passed the exams. And graduated in 1928 at the top of her nursing school class.

But it was the beginning of the Depression and jobs were scarce. After some time doing private duty nursing, she found a position as surgery ward supervisor at the VA Hospital in Milwaukee (WI), where she lived in the nurses home on the grounds. Then she moved on to the Waukesha (WI) Memorial Hospital and during World War II, to the huge Allis-Chalmers factory in Milwaukee where she worked as an industrial nurse in an on-site hospital. In 1945, she began taking summers off to work at the Milwaukee Boys' Club summer camp nearby. It was the beginning of a long and happy relationship.

In 1947 she joined the Boy's Club full time as medical director and was the only woman on the program staff for more than 27 years. It was during this time that she became fondly known to whole generations of young men as ChuMaNi -- a Sioux Indian name meaning kind, gentle, and soft spoken. During her tenure at the Boy's Club, she administered to the health needs of thousands of inner city boys aged 7 to 20. She organized the first summer camping program for Wisconsin's diabetic children in 1950; the contribution she considers her most satisfying. "We had an extra dietician and a nurse to take care of their diets, to teach food exchanges and how to take their own insulin." In 1952 she supervised the formation of a free dental clinic when she discovered that many of the club members, even those as old as 14, had never been to a dentist or even been taught to brush their teeth. She also published the first professional paper in the nation on how to run a camp for handicapped children.

From 1963 to 1966, Miss Thompson was a member of the National Association of Boy's Clubs committee on health and physical fitness. In 1966 she helped make it possible for all Boys' Club members to receive free physical exams and then saw to it that all abnormal conditions were reported to the parents.

By the time she retired in 1969 she was a member of the Milwaukee club's Board of Directors. For her long and dedicated service, she received the National Distinguished Achievement award at a Boys' Club national convention in 1968. According to the citation accompanying the award, she supervised the Milwaukee Boy's Club becoming a leader in the health improvement field. The following year she was honored as the first woman to receive the national Boys' Club organization's special service award in the 81 years since its founding. She was also one of the first women to become a certified lifetime member of the Boys' Club Professional Association. Before she retired, she collected a closetful of awards signed by people such as Herbert Hoover, Hubert Humphrey, and Lyndon Johnson.

On retirement she said "I'm not ready to sit down or anything. I'm going to keep going." And so she embarked on the next phase of her career of service. Within months of her retirement, she and a friend went to the Red Cross to do some volunteer sewing. She stayed for 15 years to supervise the work of 160 community volunteers in 12 satellite units of the Red Cross, where they produced hand-crafted items for use at VA medical centers and disaster relief centers. It was her job to distribute supplies, collect the finished products, check them for quality, and prepare them for distribution.

In 1975 she was selected one of Wisconsin's 10 Most Admired Senior Citizens during the state's State Fair week honoring some of her other community affairs such as working on United Fund Drives for 30 years and earning a pin for 500 hours of Volunteer service as an admissions nurse in the Milwaukee County Institutions up until 1977.

Now 90 and a resident of a nursing home, she has discovered ceramics and a new life in the arts. She spends hours a day working with pottery and the first large piece completed was sold immediately out of her nursing home’s display case.

Our Aunt Leone has always been a special mainstay to her family. She gave summer camp “scholarships” to nephews in sorry home situations. She nursed sick and dying relatives and friends, and once lived with a schizophrenic relative because the family didn’t know how to care for the woman. And she is still the person keeping her family together, writing to grand-nephews in the service and taking newly divorced young women out for buck-up dinners. She reads widely and listens unjudgmentally, yet sympathetically to all. As a smart, open-minded, energetic and affectionate mentor, she was often the only person in the extended family to encourage her nieces to go on to higher education. She offered encouragement, advice and loaned money to at least three of them so they could complete their dreams too. 

Submitted on 3/14/94