Emma Lou Thayne handles success with grace
by Nettie Pendley
In her basement office, surrounded by manuscripts, books, photos, and memorabilia, writer Emma Lou Warner Thayne BA'45 MA'70 is conversant and comfortable, possessing the gift of making a visiting stranger feel like a lifelong friend. Sitting beside her laptop computer, which is squeezed into a small space on a crowded desk, she recalls her early and latest accomplishments.
Thayne's stellar career in writing and publishing began so long ago, she says she can't really remember when it was. She does recall writing poems when she was 11 years old, and of being accused of plagiarism by a fourth-grade teacher who was certain the poem could not have been written by one so young.
She earned her B.A. degree during the World War II years and eventually taught English part-time at the U for 30 years. "I started after the war," she says, "when all the fellows came home and the campus changed from 2,500 students to about 25,000." Teachers were needed, so some of the recent graduates were asked to teach freshman English. Thayne says when she completed her master's degree in creative writing, "they let me teach poetry and creative writing."
She also coached women's tennis at the U, long before Title IX. "We didn't have any privileges. In fact, we were lucky to be able to use a tennis court," she says. "We did solicit funds, and sometimes we'd feel lucky to get $25 so we could all have a warm-up suit. We'd borrow a University car but we'd pay our gas and go over to Wyoming or Colorado to play."
In 1980 Thayne and her partner were ranked number three nationally in the over-50 category. A freak accident ended her competition days, but she still enjoys playing with the same foursome that has been together for 40 years. "We call our game 'lunge and laugh,'" she says.
The accident occurred in 1986 when a piece of metal came through the windshield of the car in which Thayne was riding and hit her in the face, resulting in extensive surgery to her eye and face and leaving her unable to read or raise her head for seven months. The experience is the backdrop for her latest book, not yet published, The Wheel of Where, The Mystic Life of a Mormon Matriarch, in which she narrates the story of her near-death experience.
Thayne has been involved in many writing projects over the years, including poems she wrote to accompany a Ririe-Woodbury performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and her "peace poems" (which became, How Much for the Earth?, published by Utahns United Against the Nuclear Arms Race). These poems were translated into Russian and German a serendipitous happening, as it turned out. They became her passport through customs in Moscow as the stern woman examining Thayne's luggage found the book of poems and began reading them aloud. She mellowed as she read, then smiled and passed Thayne through without further investigation.
Best known for her poetry, Thayne has also written novels, prose, and screenplays and has collaborated on books with other writers, such as Lowell Bennion and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. "Emma Lou is an inspiration!' Ulrich says someone with the "capacity to give undivided attention to others. While some might complain about a traffic-congested ride from the airport, Emma Lou makes friends with the taxi driver. She is tuned in to people, to words, and to the divine."
Thayne has received numerous awards, including a Distinguished Alumna of the University of Utah, the David O. McKay Humanities Award at BYU, and the Chamber of Commerce Honors in the Arts Award (for which her portrait hangs in Abravanel Hall). The Emma Lou Thayne Center for Service Learning at Salt Lake Community College was named to honor her commitment to service and to the community. She was also the only woman on the board of the Deseret News for 17 years.
Still, Thayne says her greatest treasure and accomplishment is her family. She and her husband, Melvin, met when he was a water-ski concession operator at Pine View Reservoir in Ogden Canyon. They have five daughters, five sons-in-law, 18 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
An exuberant 78-year-old woman, Thayne has squeezed more into her life than most even dare to dream of. As her longtime friend, Rep. Afton Bradshaw BA'47 MS'83, says, "The thing that is amazing about her is she has time for everybody. She is always available whenever friends need her help and does caring things for individuals. She has gentle strength."
A major crisis in Thayne's family severely tested this strength. A lifetime of experiences could not have prepared her for the illness of her daughter, Becky Markosian, which involved manic depression, anorexia, and bulimia. Her daughter became obsessed about her weight when she was still a girl and dieted fiercely for years, determined to maintain her weight at 105 pounds.
Markosian and her mother have written a book together, Hope and Recovery, about this period. "Becky has been remarkable in being willing to tell her story," says Thayne. "For many years, she felt ashamed. Now she knows what a bright light she has been."
Twenty years later, Markosian and her mother listened to another mother tell her daughter's story one that ended in the tragic death of a 16-year-old and Markosian said, "Mother, I want to tell my story."
The book relates a three-and-a-half-year struggle to find a way to restore normalcy to Markosian's life. It explores the intimate thoughts of a girl afflicted with manic depression who was also binge eating and purging to stay at 105 pounds. The book documents the successes and failures in searching for a medication that was effective and for a doctor who could reach her. It details the painfully slow climb to regain stability and purpose in her life a life since filled with accomplishment as an artist, businesswoman, wife, mother, and friend, and now as a grandmother.
"You can't believe the comments we've had from people about how much the book has helped them," Thayne says. The gratitude both Thayne and her daughter feel toward that doctor Bernard Grosser, chair of the U's Department of Psychiatry, who found a medication that worked for Markosian has been expressed numerous times. But now they are able to honor him in another way. The book, originally published in 1992, has been reprinted in paperback, and the royalties from its sale will go to the Department of Psychiatry. The Emma Lou Thayne and Becky Markosian Development Fund in the Department of Psychiatry has been established to provide a scholarship to deserving students, residents, or faculty doing research in the subject area of affective disorders or eating disorders.
Thayne is enthusiastic about the fund and the assistance it will give deserving students in their search to help others who are afflicted with illnesses about which so little is known. As a Salt Lake Community College editorial noted of her, "She magnifies moments that many would allow to pass without recognition." Indeed, she is a woman of gentle strength.
Nettie Pendley BA'59 is Continuum editorial assistant.