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In Memoriam: Thelma H. Richardson

Mar. 23, 2012

Writer: Beth Gavrilles, bethgav@uga.edu

Contact: Beth Gavrilles, bethgav@uga.edu

On Friday, March 4, 2011, we lost a dear colleague and friend when Thelma Richardson died after suffering a massive stroke. A celebration of Thelma’s life will be held on Saturday, April 23 from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Odum School of Ecology.

Please scroll down to read tributes by some of Thelma's Ecology colleagues and friends.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that everyone who passed through the Institute and later the Odum School of Ecology, whether student, faculty, or staff, knew and treasured Thelma Richardson. Thelma had the distinction of having the longest staff tenure in Ecology, guiding us through the evolution of information technology from the days of punch cards to the era of iPads, with grace, knowledge, kindness, and humor. She offered invaluable assistance and advice to countless faculty, students, and staff, never turning down a request for help; no job was too large or too small for Thelma.

Thelma Hansen was born on April 23, 1943 in Teaneck, New Jersey. She attended Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, where she majored in mathematics, and where she met her husband-to-be Jim Richardson. They graduated in 1965, were married in 1966, and came to the University of Georgia that fall. Jim started graduate studies with Eugene Odum and Thelma began her career as a computer programmer in UGA’s computer center, first located in Lumpkin House—at that time also the home of the newly-formed Institute of Ecology—and later in the basement of Boyd Hall.

It was not long before Thelma was hired away from the computer center and began working for the Institute as statistician and computer technologist, a position she held for more than forty years. She proved to be an invaluable resource, helping ecology researchers assemble, sort, and analyze their data. Her work was so crucial that she was listed as a coauthor on dozens of scholarly papers and publications.

Everyone at Ecology came to depend heavily upon Thelma’s intelligence, reliability, and resourcefulness. In the early 1970s, when Bernie Patten led a workshop in ecosystem modeling on a coral atoll in the Caribbean, he asked Thelma for assistance. She accompanied him and helped develop and conduct the ground-breaking two-week workshop on Glover’s Reef, without benefit of computers. They developed methods, still followed today, for organizing and capturing participants’ ideas, and her accurate recordkeeping was crucial to the project’s success. She played a similar role later for a summer-long workshop at Lake Texoma, Oklahoma, with the added duties of computer management. Thelma had arranged to use off-site computers in New York and Pennsylvania to conduct the group’s computations. Since the data had to be sent over phone lines, she often worked all night, taking advantage of the only time those lines were open. Such selfless devotion to her colleagues and their work—as well as the late-night hours—continued throughout her career.

Thelma was a pioneer in many ways, not only as one of the first people at UGA working with computers. When Thelma and Jim began their family, Thelma chose to continue working at the job she loved. She simply brought her children along, setting a precedent that has been happily followed by a number of faculty and graduate students since. In recent years, Thelma had the great joy of introducing her two young granddaughters to her Ecology family.

The other defining interest of Thelma’s life was her work with sea turtles. She played a critical role in international sea turtle research and conservation, bringing her computer and statistical analysis skills to bear. Thelma was a founder of the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative, and for many years a driving force behind the annual Sea Turtle Symposium, an international gathering for sea turtle researchers.

Everything Thelma did, she did with complete dedication. It was clear to all of us how deeply committed she was to Ecology, to her colleagues, and especially to the students. She received the Institute’s Employee of the Year award twice, and in 1997 the Ecology graduate students thanked her by presenting her the Purple Heart Award “for service above and beyond the call of duty.” In 2008 Thelma established the Richardson-Golley Undergraduate Support Fund as yet another way to help Ecology students succeed.

Thelma is survived by her husband, undergraduate coordinator and faculty instructor of ecology Jim Richardson; their daughter Nikki and her husband John Paul Preston; son Jamie and his wife Sarah Richardson; granddaughters Eileen Preston and Emma Grace Richardson; and brothers Frederick and Ronald Hansen.


"What a blessing she was to us. How many times did she help me out - countless. And getting that paper put in the printers the right way! Thank you Thelma for your selfless and committed devotion to the Institute. In my mind you will always be there, smiling, helpful, and committed to the Institute."
- Mike Paul, Ph.D. ‘99

"When I think of Thelma, I think of the day of my oral exams when I was standing outside the room waiting on my committee. Thelma walked by, saw me standing there anxiously and stopped to talk with me until it was time to go into the room. I felt so much better after talking with her. There wasn't any computer problem to fix or any IT issue, she was just being her usual kind, calm and reassuring self and helping out a stressing grad student in any way she could. She'll be greatly missed."
- Erin Dreelin,Ph.D. ‘04

"Early on in my days working as a research scientist at SREL (1965-71), I consulted with Dr. John McGinnis, who was our resident statistician and also Assistant Professor of Botany at UGA. From the outset, I worked with Thelma Richardson, an attractive young technician and statistician who was supervised by Dr. McGinnis. She was very helpful in assembling data sets, entering data onto IBM cards, and generally keeping track of what was going on. As with others from SREL, we had a number of extensive field experiments under way, and the principal means of analyzing results was via various statistical programs such as analyses of variance and regressions.

"Throughout all these analyses, Thelma was the person who handled data inputs and outputs, and helped to keep Dr. McGinnis and me “on track” as we pondered the results. The data, once entered on IBM cards, were then taken across campus to the Computer Center, with its fancy IBM 7094 computer in the basement of the Graduate Studies Building. Thelma impressed us always with her cheerful manner and no-nonsense way of double-checking data, no mean feat in those days of many hundreds of IBM cards, with one datum per card!"
- Dave Coleman, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus

"Thelma was a holist. She had a way of engaging people with multidisciplinary expertise. She was always there – a quiet, pervasive presence to whom people would gravitate when they needed something done."
- Bernie Patten, Regent’s Professor

"Ecology has always had a reputation for cooperation and Thelma represented that virtue better than anyone. On any day, one might find Thelma stringing Ethernet wiring in the ceiling space, hauling packages of paper to the copy machines, saving ink cartridges for recycling, working on student or administration databases, repairing Macintosh computers, or salvaging data from crashed hard drives. And, she did it all without complaining. If you ever said to Thelma, “Shouldn’t so and so be doing this? Isn’t this their responsibility?” her response would always be something like, 'Well, it just needs to get done.'

"One learned not to ask Thelma to help fix something late in the afternoon because you knew she would come back to work on it in the evening. Or, if it were late on a Friday, Thelma would be in over the weekend to take care of the problem. Thelma was selfless, always putting the needs of others above hers."
- Ron Carroll, Professor

"Thelma always showed tremendous dedication to both her family and the Odum School of Ecology. I always admired her focus. The five years I worked alongside her helped me learn many valuable lessons as I began my career. I will always be grateful for her generosity and patience. One of the most valuable lessons she exemplified was putting others before one's self."
- Jeremy Sanderlin, former Systems Administrator

"Thelma Richardson began working on the Little Cumberland Island loggerhead patrol in 1966, a week after marrying Jim Richardson, and helped create the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative in 1970. From 1980 until the late 1990s, she worked tirelessly behind the scenes to “make things happen” at the Annual Sea Turtle Symposia in a variety of roles. She would be in her “computer room” from first light to midnight helping hundreds of students with their abstracts, and doing myriad other labors of love. These were good years for Thelma, surrounded by friends from around the world on a common mission for research and conservation of sea turtles."
- Rod Mast, Conservation International

"Thelma's unselfish dedication to the Ecology family greatly enriched many lives. She simply gave of herself and got us through many moments that we will remember forever. A simple moment of her time left a permanent impression on us through achieved deadlines, successful defenses, offered alongside a pleasant and patient smile over her glasses. I met Thelma when I was eighteen and she has been there for me every time I needed her for the past fourteen years, whether it was for something small like fixing a jammed printer, or needing a hug and an Athens Mom. She was a light-hearted and dedicated friend who would lend an ear for anything at any time. Her smiles and patience will always be treasured warm thoughts. Thelma also had far-reaching impacts on the sea turtle world through the initial organization of the international sea turtle meetings and in dedicating hours and her meticulous ways to data management with the Little Cumberland Island and Antigua projects. There are a lot of us who would have lost our minds time and time again if we didn't have a touch of Thelma in our lives."
- Kimberly Andrews, Ph.D. ‘10

"Thelma constantly put her own work aside to help others. This often involved dealing with people who were panic-stricken and stressed because of some type of technical difficulty, but she had a great deal of patience, gave her full attention to the issue, and managed to fix the problem. She was always there when you needed her, and now it feels strange to not be able to go to her, or to simply get that friendly reminder in the evening to 'lock up the computer lab when you're done'. Thelma will be missed, and I'm glad to have known her."
- Andrew Mehring, Ph.D. Student

"Thelma did so many things so well, so quietly, without recognition. She was the ideal team member—careful, thorough, dedicated. She found many critical things to do, that only she had the patience and dedication to follow up on. She was truly a great teacher."
- Alan Covich, Professor

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