Thelma was born on a 40-acre farm in the Westport district south of Modesto, the fifth of three boys and three girls. Thelma’s parents had moved in 1917 to the farm on Carpenter Road, where they lived the rest of their lives; their first grandson, David, owns and operates the farm today.
Money was always tight during Thelma’s childhood. In order to stay afloat during the Depression, all six children had to work. Thelma’s early chores on the farm included chopping enough wood for the cookstove the next day and hoeing weeds in the fields of corn or beans.
Thelma went to Jones School, where she was taught by the same two Danish teachers all through grammar school. She graduated from Ceres High School in 1936, attended Modesto Junior College, and in 1940 graduated from Santa Barbara State College (which later became UCSB), where she earned a teaching credential.
In 1945, she joined the American Red Cross, trained in Washington, D.C., and served as director of recreational activities at St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens, on Long Island. Later, she felt drawn to religious work, so Thelma went to Baptist Missionary Training School in Chicago for one year of post-graduate work. She was hired as Director of Christian Education in the First Baptist Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After two years, she was invited by her father to travel with him and his sister to Denmark and Norway. While there, she was asked to stay with her grandmother, an aunt and uncle, and cousins in Norway for a year. There she taught an English class and learned to spin and weave in the Norwegian Arts and Crafts School (SHKS) in Oslo while getting to know her family very well.
Thelma returned to California in June 1950 to teach seventh grade at Westport School across the road from the farm. Thelma met Hurley Couchman at the First Baptist Church when both of them were 30 and where she first heard of his 250 “mature cows”. After a year of dating, they were married on June 27, 1952 and made their home on the Couchman farm on Coffee Road, where she painted the house red to match the farm buildings she’d seen in Sweden and Norway. There they had four sons and two daughters, and Thelma was so busy raising them that she never had to milk another cow in her life.
Hurley and Thelma sponsored an American Field Service exchange student from Brazil, then gave the annual AFS Christmas party for over a decade while taking into their home exchange students through MJC, the American Farm Bureau, Heifer Project International, and others. Hurley and Thelma together were fortunate to travel to countries in Central America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. During her later years, she worshiped and attended classes at Modesto Church of the Brethren.