LIMA — Thelma Davis Calhoun lived a long, productive life that came oh-so-close to ending when she was 15 years old.
“Miss Thelma Davis, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Grant Davis, 1436 Lowell Ave., narrowly escaped death Monday when fire razed the building of St. Mary’s Academy at Monroe, Michigan, and did damage estimated at more than $500,000,” The Lima News reported June 4, 1929. “Miss Davis, a student at the academy, was on the fourth floor when fire started in the building. The flames spread so rapidly that she was forced to dodge fire and grope her way through smoke-filled corridors. Just as she reached the open the roof of the building fell, carrying down the floors beneath it.”
In the seven decades after that narrow escape, Calhoun married, moved west, worked as a gun-toting deputy U.S. marshal, served as a city council member and supervisor for Carson, City, Nevada, as well as on several Nevada state commissions and through it all earned acclaim for her artwork. On April 30, 1999, six months after her death, the Nevada Legislature passed a resolution noting that “the artwork and other civic achievements of Thelma Davis Calhoun visible in the State of Nevada will always serve as reminder of her devotion to Nevada and the many ways she so generously and wholeheartedly served the residents of this state …”
Calhoun began life Aug. 19, 1913, in Warren, the daughter of Grant and Mary Harrah Davis. A sister, Gladys, was born in 1915 and a brother, Grant, in 1918. Before her brother’s birth, the family moved to Lima, then a growing industrial city with a population approaching 41,000. Her father worked as a sales manager for an equipment company. Two years after surviving the fire at the Michigan private school, Calhoun was graduated from Central High School, where she was known as Tad and voted one of the prettiest girls in her class. She went on to attend Ohio State University and St. Rita’s School of Nursing, eventually working at the Jersey Medical Center in Jersey City, New Jersey. She also briefly attended a school of design in New York.
According to the website for the Nevada Women’s History Project, relating a story told by one of her nephews, Calhoun war lured west after an uncle won part of a Montana mine and smelter operation in a poker game. While visiting her uncle, Calhoun fell for the mine’s on-site manager, James Calhoun, and married him in the summer of 1935 in Butte, Montana.
“The Calhouns subsequently moved to Grass Valley, California, then Seattle, Washington. After World War II, the Calhoun family, which now included son Jim and daughter ‘Pinky,’ pooled their gas rations and with a flip of a coin at every crossroads, ended up in Carson City, Nevada.”
In 1947, Calhoun went to work for the Nevada superintendent of public instruction. Among her tasks, was securing war surplus for Nevada schools. In 1949, she accepted a position as a research assistant in the new Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau, which provided research and other assistance to the state legislature.
“She worked there until 1954 when she ‘retired’ to devote more time to painting,” according to the women’s history site. “When her son Jim returned home from deployment in Germany and needed financial assistance to complete his education at the University of Nevada, Thelma once again became employed, this time as the deputy United States marshal in Carson City where she handled the funds for the U.S. Court, the U.S. Parole and Probation offices, the marshal’s office and the United States Attorney’s offices.” Calhoun also escorted female prisoners to Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.
Calhoun continued to pack a palette even while packing a pistol for the marshal service in the late 1950s. By 1960, however, she had retired from the marshal service to again devote full time to her art. “Thelma Calhoun amazed the crowd by sweeping her palette knife, heavily laden with paint, in a downward motion — presto — one side of an old building was formed!,” the (Reno) Nevada State Journal wrote May 13, 1962, of a demonstration by Calhoun at the Western States Art Show.
“Her paintings covered a variety of subjects,” the Las Vegas Sun wrote Oct. 28, 1998, in Calhoun’s obituary. “In 1989, she received the ‘Governor’s Art Award’ for distinguished service to the arts. She was a member of the Nevada State Council on the Arts from 1967 to 1969, again in 1972 and then from 1982 to 1988.”
During her lifetime, Calhoun would sell more than 500 paintings. “Mrs. Calhoun is known for her oil interpretations of Nevada street scenes and historical buildings,” the State Journal noted June 26, 1969. “Her work has been exhibited in juried shows in Nevada and California and has consistently been award winners. Her paintings are represented in many private United States and Canada collections.”
Calhoun’s devotion to the arts shows in a column she wrote Aug. 16, 1970, for the State Journal lobbying for a local art gallery. “When your paintings back up in the garage, under the beds, and in closets for lack of a place to display them, what incentive is there to continue studying and painting, and endeavoring to improve and become a better artist? A permanent gallery is vital to progress.”
In 1966, according to the women’s history project, “Thelma ran and was elected to the Carson City Council and worked to accomplish the consolidation of the city and county offices since there was a duplication of services. She held that office until 1969. In 1974, she was asked and ran for the Carson City Board of Supervisors. She was elected and served from 1975 until 1979 — the last two years she served as mayor pro tempore.”
Calhoun was a colorful and outspoken member of the board of supervisors, weighing in on many critical issues. A nagging issue for Carson City, the capital of Nevada, was the amount of money the state gave the city. On Jan. 14, 1976, Calhoun told the State Journal that Carson City “is penalized as a result of not being able to collect supportive tax from our largest industry. You should see our budget this year. I’m thinking of opening my vein.” On Dec. 12, 1976, Calhoun, noting that “government is our biggest business and we can’t tax it,” told the newspaper, “We can’t make a decent capital city — we’re running the honkiest bunch of city offices we can possibly get.”
Calhoun, though, was best known for her art. When she died in October 1998, James McCormick, a professor emeritus of art at the University of Nevada, Reno, told the Sun, “One of her lasting gifts to Nevada is her documentation of old Nevada buildings — homes, businesses and state buildings, many of which no longer exist.”
A tribute in celebration of Calhoun’s life was held Nov. 14, 1998, at the Brewery Art Center in Carson City, for which Calhoun, as a member of Carson City’s board of supervisors, had helped procure funds.
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.