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Thelma Mildred Walker, 98, devoted family matriarch

She supported her Baptist minister husband as First Lady of his church.

THELMA MILDRED Walker never believed she had made any painful sacrifices in her life.

It was true, she gave up her dream of becoming a nurse by going to work in a factory to help support a growing family.

And she gave up any notion of exploiting her natural talent as an artist for a career in the arts. And as a mother of five, it was always necessary to put her family's needs ahead of her own.

"I used to think it must have been painful for her to sacrifice so much," said her son Reginald. "But what she got in return was a life of love. All that remains of a life well-lived is love."

Thelma Walker, devoted family matriarch who was a supportive wife of a Baptist preacher, died Thursday at age 98. She was living in Williamstown, N.J., but had lived most of her life in Philadelphia.

"She taught us unconditional love, and she taught us how to die," said her granddaughter Linda Belam. "She was a spoonful of sugar in a family full of strong medicine."

"Hers was a profound and gentle love," her son said.

Thelma was born in Beech Island, Aiken County, S.C., to Cornelia Simkins and Frank Altimont Galphin. Thelma and her grandmother Lydia Willingham moved north when she was a child and settled in Glassboro, N.J.

She went to elementary school there, and met a boy named Charles Walker Jr.

The family moved to Philadelphia and Thelma attended William Penn High School. She joined the family church, Hopewell Baptist.

And before long, back into her life came Walker. They reconnected and were married in 1934. He went on to study theology at Eastern Seminary and became the minister of New Psalmist Baptist Church, the new name for Hopewell Baptist.

As the family grew, Thelma took a job in a factory to help support them.

When her children were young, Thelma confided to them that they were related to Abraham Lincoln. But she cautioned them not to tell anyone for fear of ridicule.

Years later, Reginald decided to do some genealogical research to see if there was anything to what his mother had said. He said he discovered that they weren't related to Lincoln, but to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, through the Simkins family.

He also discovered that a distant cousin was William Stewart Simkins, who, as a Citadel cadet, might have fired the first shot at Fort Sumter on Jan. 9, 1861, to start the Civil War.

After her husband became pastor of New Psalmist Baptist Church, Thelma became the first lady. "She was truly loved and respected by the congregants," her family said. Her husband died in 1985.

Thelma resumed her interest in art in her later years, and her landscape oils decorate homes of family and friends.

Granddaughter Linda Belam noted that her grandmother was an "August baby," born under the zodiac sign of Leo the Lion.

"But some called her 'Leo the Lamb' because her demeanor was so gentle. Her devotion to family, her patience, her beauty and poise were among the finest qualities we attribute to lionesses," Linda said.

Besides her son, she is survived by two other sons, Ronald and Jerome; a daughter, Diane Elam; 14 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by another son, Gary.

Services: 11 a.m. Friday at Church of the Redeemer Baptist Church, 1440 S. 24th St. Friends may call at 9 a.m.