FALMOUTH – One of the most influential members of the Democratic party on Cape Cod is five feet tall and 96 years old. Thelma Goldstein of the Falmouth Democratic Committee is, literally, a little old lady.
But that’s about the only thing that is little and old about her. Goldstein has big ideas, and a refreshingly optimistic outlook on this election day. She believes in the transformational power of politicians.
“She’s an extraordinary woman,” said Martha Coakley, Democratic candidate for governor. “She has a huge heart.” On the day before the Democratic primary, Coakley took time from her busy campaign schedule to talk to Cape Cod Wave about Goldstein.
Coakley said when she first thought of statewide office and began looking to the Cape, “People said to me you have to go meet Thelma.” Coakley said that after meeting Goldstein she has come to realize that Goldstein is not just a power broker, “she is THE power broker on Cape Cod.”
Goldstein is supporting Coakley and recently stood for almost two hours at a busy Falmouth intersection holding a sign and waving at people, and even at one point, cajoling with a Republican friend who drove by.
“Everybody wants her endorsement,” said former state representative Eric Turkington. “Everybody knows her, everybody likes her, and she works like a dog for the people she supports.”
And, said Turkington, “She’s been around long enough to recognize the good things that have happened have come from the Democrats and she remembers them all, back to Social Security.”
“I thought I was going to be an actress,” said Goldstein, who was born in Thelma Ginsberg 1917 in Manhattan and moved back and forth a few times between there and Brooklyn and then Brighton Beach. She was the oldest of four children.
Her father owned ice cream factories. “I was sitting in Smitty’s the other day thinking, you haven’t had ice cream until you’ve had it at the ice cream factory,” said Goldstein. “There were pipes on the ceiling, valves with ingredients that opened and shut depending on the recipe.”
Her father had immigrated from Russia and his family brought over the ice cream recipes,she said. She recalls her father saying that as a boy he was a bike courier for Western Union and if he had enough money, he would go see the New York Giants play baseball. This would have been before 1900, she guessed.
“I read very early,” said Goldstein. “I was kind of precocious. I came from a family where there were newspapers around every day.”
Her father was a big newspaper reader, and he made it clear that he had his favorite columnists. She said his philosophy had “a streak of humanism.” She recalled lively discussions about current events such as the execution of Italian born anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927. “The only time we kept our comments to a minimum was when the Giants lost,” she said.
And then came the stock market crash of 1929. “We had prosperity before the crash and then we had the crash and I think I went into a depression,” she recalled. She was 12.
“Parents of kids I knew couldn’t function,” said Goldstein. “Kids dropped out of school to get jobs in Woolworth, if they could. The Bank of the United States failed. We went through a whole period where people starved. It was heart-wrenching.”
Herbert Hoover was President. “Herbert Hoover; we hated him,” said Goldstein. “He believed in small government. He didn’t believe in helping people. Brother, can you spare a dime. That’s the way it was.”
“And then President Roosevelt was elected and for some reason you felt like he was the savior,” said Goldstein. “You felt that he was going to do something. What came to my mind was that if someone was powerful and had good intentions, they could change the world.”
Polio was going around and especially dangerous in the summer in New York. In order to get her away in the summer, Goldstein, from the age of 12 to 19 was sent to a camp for Jewish education – first on Lake Champlain in Vermont and then in Oneonta, New York.
“The faculty and other counselors were very well educated,” she said. These counselors greatly influenced her, she said.
Summer after summer she went back, and her informal education that encouraged her love of thinking continued amidst the summer camp atmosphere of Gilbert and Sullivan plays, and various competitions with summer camp award ceremonies. In two interviews and more than four hours of speaking with Cape Cod Wave, Goldstein’s eyes had a constant twinkle, but never more than when she spoke of the joy of that summer camp.
“The counselors were kind of liberal,” said Goldstein.
By the mid 1930s, fascism was on the rise in Europe while other ideas surfaced in the United States. Goldstein said her sister, 18 months younger, was an idealist who sometimes associated with members of the Communist party, “but she was never a member.”
In 1937, Goldstein was 20. Her family had relocated to New Jersey, where her father had set up a new ice cream factory. She went on a blind date with a man a decade older than her. She was set up on the date by a friend and a guy from Hoboken, New Jersey named Bummy Bear who was “always on the edge of something,” she said.
Her blind date’s name was Joseph Goldstein. Until then she said, “I was dating kids. This was 1937.”
Joe was not a kid. He was a doctor. “I came home that night and I said I’m going to marry him,” she said. “The next day, he showed up with his best friend just to make sure I looked as good during the day as I did at night.”
They were married in 1938. “In a year after I was married, nobody recognized me,” said Goldstein, who recalled she had just been attending parties with kids her own age and then, “I was wearing double-breasted suits, with my hair in a bun, and having babies.”
“In 1940, Joe got called into the National Guard, the 44th Infantry Division” she said.
Asked what he looked like, she said, “He looked like a real stuffed shirt.”
He had found a doctor to cover his practice so he could train on weekends with the National Guard. And then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. “That division packed up that night and left by train for Alexandria, Louisiana,” she said. She didn’t hear from him. She didn’t even know where he was. “I had little babies. Neil was three weeks old,” said Goldstein.
“I don’t think the country knew what was happening to it.” said Goldstein “All this stuff was moving up and down the highway.” She recalled relatives who were trying to travel who turned around because the highways were full of military gear moving.
The 44th moved to the West Coast, and Goldstein and her children followed her husband there. Every six weeks, she said, the 44th moved to another location on the West Coast because the military was afraid of spies and thought a quick rotation of troops from place to place would somehow help prevent spying.
Goldstein’s friends marvel at her stories of those days.
“Thelma is amazing,” said Penelope Duby, a Democratic activist who has known Goldstein for ten years and heard many stories. “She gives us a window into history of things we don’t even know about.”
Goldstein said, “Joe was a good doctor. He accompanied a general who had been burned by a flamethrower and helped treat him so he could be on the front lines. He was in Dachau the day it was liberated.”
“That’s only the beginning of the story,” she said.
“After Truman dropped the bomb, Joe came back to his practice. He hated it. After three years, he came home one day and said the practice was going to kill him.”
So, mid-career, he did the unthinkable for a doctor. He decided to switch to a career in research of isotope medicine for the peaceful use of the atom for medical uses, said Goldstein. This just wasn’t done, but he did it and the adventure continued.
He worked in government, at one point for the surgeon general. He worked in Germany from 1951 to 1954, “at the height of the Cold War,” she said. She recalled that none of the Germans she ever met claimed to have ever known anything about the Nazi concentration camps. Everyone was in denial, and she found it hard to reconcile the smiling families she saw with what she knew.
The country was in ruin. “You almost felt like you were in some kind of a nightmare,” said Goldstein. “Everything had to be rebuilt.”
And Germany had refugees from other countries coming in. Goldstein said she remembered visiting “an old, old woman, perfectly beautiful,” named Countess Adelmann in the town of Ellwangen. “There were two German battalions stationed there during the war. When the Americans took over, Joe was stationed there, in the medical battalion,” she said.
Goldstein said the countess knew of her and the Americans and, “I got a call inviting me at a certain time… She was in one room with a baby grand piano. There were pictures of people, beautiful people on the piano. The rest of the house was filled with refugees 50 to 60 of them.”
The countess had called Goldstein to tell her what the refugees needed from the Army Commissary – including “coffee, prunes, rice, potatoes – basic stuff.”
“I got to visit with her. We got to be friends,” said Goldstein, “It turned out that two of her sons were part of the plot to kill Hitler.”
After Germany, Joe worked in Washington, San Francisco, Maryland, and then Berkeley, California. Goldstein, with four children in tow, followed her husband from place to place. But along the way, she began learning some new skills, and following up on some old passions.
All those years, she had been involved at some level in Democratic politics. She worked for Adalai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey, then Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. “I hated Nixon with a passion,” she said.
“It was illegal for me to be an activist in the military,” she said, but she quietly joined various organizations wherever she was.
She remembers going on a protest march. “I knew that I just felt comfortable doing it. I was helpful… to causes, to candidates, and to campaigns.”
But her life was more than babies and politics. She saw into the future and she thought she may need a profession, so one day when she was living in San Francisco she went into a florist on Union Street and offered her services for free in order to learn to be a florist.
She spent her mornings cutting flowers, cleaning flowers, and waiting on customers. “Late in the afternoon, we’d sit down with the flowers and get into arrangements,” she said. ”It was for free, but soon I was getting paid.”
She also began studying pottery and became serious at it.
In 1979 she was living in Berkeley. She divorced her husband. They had been married for 38 years.
“Freedom!” she said.
She was 62 years old.
After a few weeks in Berkeley after leaving her husband, Goldstein moved East to Kensington, Maryland to be near where her daughter and son-in-law lived. Her son-in-law had an oncology practice in Maryland. They had two young children. Goldstein could help out.
She got a job at a flower shop owned by two gay men, a couple. She worked there and learned but, “They were fighting. They fought so much, they burned the place down,” said Goldstein.
She bought a house in Maryland and opened a ceramic studio in her home while also becoming involved in politics. She recalled that, coming from California, “All everyone wanted to know about was (then Presidential candidate) Jerry Brown.”
But during this time, she joined an artists guild and focused on her pottery, which is a style she described as “production pottery – useful, utilitarian.” She studied and went to retreats in Tennessee, Alfred University in Alfred, New York, and even Italy.
“Thanksgiving 1990, I was living my own life. I had a good bunch of friends. But I Injured my back. I had 300 pounds of pottery in the yard, and I tried to pull it in myself. The next morning I could not get out of bed. I was really incapacitated. I couldn’t do glazing, I couldn’t bend over into kilns “
It lasted months. It didn’t get better. She began to think it wasn’t going to get better. Maybe she couldn’t do pottery anymore. One day, she decided she would put the house up for sale, not thinking anyone would buy it. Three days later, a young woman visited and saw the pottery studio and said, “Oh, my mother’s a potter.”
Goldstein was 73 years old.
“I said to my daughter-in-law, Now I have choices,” said Goldstein.
“I always loved the Cape,” she said. She had been here before, to Truro, Brewster, and the dunes of Wellfleet. She even recalled visiting Woods Hole in the 1950s with her husband.
Now she had a chance to try living here. Sure, she was 73 years old with a bad back. It seemed to Goldstein like a perfect time for a fresh start in a place where she knew no one. A sense of adventure is something in me,” she said, explaining how she made such a move. “I can find some pursuit of joy, of pleasure. There’s something. Don’t ask me what it is. It’s been there all my life.”
And so, in August 1991, she moved to Cape Cod – “a yellow house with a white picket fence” in West Hyannisport to be specific. She picked Hyannis because it was centrally located, said Goldstein.
One week later, Hurricane Bob hit. She got through it and decided she liked it here. She began taking pottery classes in Brewster and while there became friends with a woman in the ceramics studio from Falmouth. The woman asked for some help taking care of her child and Goldstein agreed. That arrangement didn’t work out as planned, but Falmouth did.
She recalled walking down Falmouth Main Street in 1992 with her son Jack. “Jack and I are walking down Main Street and here is this sign, ‘Clinton-Gore Headquarters’. I said to to Jack, ‘Go home. I’m in good shape. I’ll make friends here.’ “
The next day she went into headquarters and put $10 in the donation bucket – something very out of the ordinary, she said. It caught attention and she was soon given a list of people to call. Before she knew it, she was staffing the office with no heat and not even a bathroom. “You had to go across the street,” she said.
“They knew I was dedicated,” said Goldstein.
By 1994, she was co-chair of the Falmouth Democratic Town Committee. And she has been a fixture, with or without a title, ever since. “She’s amazingly active,” said Turkington. “She runs the headquarters.”
Goldstein has been a delegate to the state and the national convention. She has seen great speeches. “We are all transfixed by the power of these speeches,” she said.
And what she feels from these speeches and politicians, she tries to pass along to others so they can also pass it along. “Thelma finds people,” said Duby. “She has an antenna for who is interested.”
And she makes sure everyone knows who she supports.
Coakely said of Goldstein, “her word on candidates is like gold.”
Judy Fenwick, a volunteer with the Coakley campaign, called Goldstein, “a sage. I want to be like Thelma when I grow up.” Fenwick is 67.
“She’s real,” said Fenwick. “She’s not a character. She’s an icon. She’s masterful in her relationships. She’s funny. She’s cajoling. She’s sharper than I am, she’s impatient, and I’m not afraid to drive with her.”
Fenwick said, “I took her to a talk in Woods Hole, an Australian expert on longevity. After the talk, she went up to him and introduced herself and said, ‘I’m an older person and there’s something you missed about the key to longevity. Dear, you forgot about the 5 o’clock cocktail.’ “
“If politics keeps someone young like this,” said Fenwick, “I want more.”
It seems many want what Goldstein has – especially Democrats. Coakley is by no means the only big-name Democrat Goldstein has met. There are photos in her house of her with Bill Clinton; with Edward Kennedy, with Joe Biden, and with Elizabeth Warren. Recently, she said, an autographed copy of Elizabeth Warren’s book, “A Fighting Chance” was delivered to her door.
“She is particularly supportive of woman candidates,” said Coakley.
Goldstein acknowledges as much and said she is a big fan of Hillary Clinton, who she has followed since her days at Wellsely College and then on the staff of the Watergate Hearings.
“Most of us feel that Thelma is waiting for a woman president,” said Duby.
Male or female, Democratic politicians seem to adore her and acknowledge her sway with voters. On her 94th birthday, she said, Governor Deval Patrick was on the Cape for a visit to Woods Hole and afterward he stopped at her house to wish her a happy birthday. “He came in the door and wished me a happy birthday and got down on his hands and knees and bowed like this,” she said, acting how sports fans act near a conquering hero.
Goldstein said, “A lot of people think I have influence. They like my judgment.”
And so despite all the negativity associated with politics and, specifically politicians, Goldstein, one month from her 97th birthday, is optimistic that things are getting better and will continue to get better.
“If you’ve seen the way this country has evolved, it’s always been two steps forward, one step back,” said Goldstein. “There are a lot of positive things that hold out a promise for change. You can get good things done. I believe in the possibilities. I believe if I speak up enough, some of it gets through.”
Change is about politics and political campaigns she said. Goldstein has long understood how America transfers power, and she has been determined to be part of it. “I’m sensible,” said Goldstein. “There’s a reality. You want to get elected. If you are elected, you have power.”
** If you would like to support this kind of important, independent local journalism, please see the donation button at the top of the page **
Please like us on Facebook.
For more stories like this, please see Longform stories
See our other political stories
–PLEASE SEE You Can’t Sell Right Field, a novel from Cape Cod Wave…. about a huge piece of land for sale, a crooked developer, a softball team named The Townies, and an election. Based on the true story (the developer went to jail) of a large Cape Cod development from the early 1990s, and Cape Cod softball.
— Thelma Goldstein is also quoted in this story, from before the 2016 Massachusetts presidential primary…
— Brian Tarcy