Mary Thoits, the dynamic, fun-loving creator of Long Beach City College’s popular Senior Studies program — which attracted thousands of elderly students over four decades — died Saturday, Jan. 2, at her home. She was 97.
Thoits died of complications from congestive heart failure, according to her nephew, Dave Thoits.
“Mary touched so many lives in her years at the college and probably knew more seniors than anyone else in Long Beach,” said Beverly O’Neill, former Long Beach mayor and LBCC superintendent-president who was vice president for student services at LBCC when she asked Thoits to start the Senior Studies program in the 1970s. “She built that program into the strong force that it is today. She was an amazing woman.”
The ever-vibrant Thoits had a strong zest for life. She went skydiving to celebrate her 85th birthday. She flew her first plane when she was 16. At 88, she crewed on a dragon boat. For years she went swimming in the ocean for exercise and spiritual stimulation. She wore costumes depicting famous women in history like Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, and Edith Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson. At 87, she flew a Cessna over Catalina Island, saying, “I hadn’t landed a plan in 50 years. Lord, help us. The landing was a little hard, but I did it.”
“I’m just a ham,” she said with an impish grin as friends celebrated her 92nd birthday in 2015 with a program headlined, “Watch a Legend Turn into a Legacy.”
Some called her the Peter Pan of Long Beach.
Thoits said she loved being with people and helping them use their brains to enjoy life. “A lot of people start worrying too much as they get older,” she said. “I wanted to let people know that if I could do these things, they could, too, and make a difference in their lives.”
Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia called Thoits “such a great lady” and said he will close the City Council meeting in her honor Tuesday.
“It broke my heart when I heard the news that she had died,” said Lou Anne Bynum, current LBCC superintendent-president and a close friend of Thoits. “I had called her New Year’s Eve to wish her a happy new year. If it hadn’t been for her, we wouldn’t have a Senior Studies program. She was one-in-a-million.”
Theresa Brunella, the current Senior Studies director, said, “We will miss Mary terribly, but her legacy will live on.”
Jeri Carter, a close friend since she and Thoits were teachers at LBCC in 1982, said she had talked to her on the phone on Saturday and Thoits complained of chest pains. Carter said Thoits had been having heart problems for a few months.
“I live close to her so I immediately went to her house,” Carter said. “She said the pain had subsided so I made her some tea and helped her to a table where she could look out the window and get some sun. I left and said I would see her later. She said alright.”
After Carter had left, Dave Thoits, like he did every day, called his aunt twice that morning but received no response, which was unusual for her because she usually answered the phone quickly. He called Carter who went back to Thoits’ house and found her lying on the floor.
Carter called 9-1-1. Paramedics responded, but it was too late. She had passed away.
Thoits has been living life with gusto ever since she was born on June 3, 1923, in Grand Rapids, Mich. That’s where she got her start in not allowing other people to tell her what she could or couldn’t do. Like when her older brother told her girls shouldn’t drive cars. So, Thoits, just 16, said the heck with cars, rode her bike to the airport, took flying lessons and started flying planes.
She enrolled later at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., where she majored in art, but she quit to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in World War II where she taught other women to fly and flew military aircraft to the East Coast for transport overseas. She returned to college, this time at Durham University in northern England where she said she had “an epiphany.”
“I had been sort of a rebel and wasn’t focused on education,” she said later. “At Durham, a professor wrote on one of my papers that I should stop just parroting back what I thought he wanted to hear and that I should start thinking for myself. That was a great discovery.”
Thoits also spent some time at the Sorbonne in Paris before working 13 years in Germany and two in Korea as a recreation director for military personnel. Lured by the ocean and sunny weather, Thoits returned to the United States and settled in Long Beach, earning a master’s degree in public administration at Cal State Long Beach.
She was looking for a job when O’Neill asked her to take over the moribund senior program, which had been holding passive events like bingo and card playing.
“There’s nothing wrong with cards and bingo,” Thoits said, “but I discovered that many of the seniors wanted to do more with their time.” She started programs aimed at developing learning by stimulating curiosity through classes, seminars, tours, music and art. “Curiosity keeps you young,” she said. She brought in distinguished speakers. And she had fun.
She taught a World Affairs class with aplomb and humor. One week she had seniors pass a ball among themselves like a hot potato while Lucy Daggett, the LBCC tour director and professional singer, sang. When Daggett stopped singing, whoever had the ball had to imagine that she was an Iranian and discuss global issues from an Iranian point of view.
“Mary made you think,” said longtime friend Connie Melin. “Even if you disagreed with her, she would plant a seed to make you think more.”
Thoits had stopped jumping out of planes, but she continued to take weekly swims in the ocean under the watchful eyes of lifeguards like Sean Guerin. Sometimes she was joined by world class open water swimming champion Lynne Cox.
“It’s amazing how she’s able to do ocean swimming at her age,” Guerin said at Thoits’ 95th birthday party. “Swimming is like a medicine to her.” He described one incident when a 3 ½-foot, baby shark went between their legs while he was helping her into the water.
“That didn’t bother her at all,” he said. “She said, ‘If they don’t bother me, I won’t bother them.’”
That was just like Thoits, living life to the fullest and continuing to learn.
Jeri Carter said Thoits seemed to lose some of her zest when her World Affairs class ended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. In the past few months, Thoits had been saying, “I’m ready to go to the other side and start over,” Carter said Sunday. When Carter asked Thoits what she meant by starting over, Thoits said that, after she passed away, she would return to earth and wanted to return as a college president, Carter said.
Beverly Norberg, who was Thoits’ assistant at LBCC, said Thoits was a very spiritual person and believed in life after death. “I talked to her Thursday and she said she was very tired and was ready to cross over,” Norberg said.
Camille Bolton, LBCC’s public relations coordinator called Thoits “my Guardian Angel Fairy Godmother.” She said her last visit with Thoits was on New Year’s Eve and was “quite perfect.”
“I lit candles and we recited Auld Lang Syne,” Bolton said. “I said she couldn’t leave us, but she had other plans, other adventures to take.”
Survivors include four nephews — Dave Thoits, Mike Thoits, Jon Thoits and Tim Thoits — and a niece, Deb Morreale. Donations in Mary Thoits’ honor can be made to the LBCC Foundation.
For information, click on lbcc.edu/lbcc-foundation.