For 57 years Judy Thiessen has chosen Cleburne’s Camp Fire USA program as her passion.

She helped build the Tesuya Council’s fire by joining as a second-grader.

She ignited it with her spirit through high school and has kept it burning as a leader ever since.

“I’ve been to 33 summer Camp Fire camps,” she said. “My original ceremonial gown disintegrated because the fabric was so old, so I’m in the process of making another. But there is no way I could sew on all the beads and add the pins that I’ve earned through the years. I couldn’t walk because it would be so heavy.”

Among those pins is the coveted Wo-he-lo, Camp Fire’s highest award.

Ken and Judy Thiessen’s daughter, Angie Austin, said she was in her mother’s Camp Fire group for 12 years.

“Mother and Daddy were everybody’s parents,” Angie said. “There were 28 of us in our group at the beginning. My mom was a wonderful leader. Everyone loved to be in her group.”

“I’d come home after my late shift at work, and there would be little girls on sleeping bags all over the floor,” said husband Ken. “They had a new member once and she yelled out, ‘There’s a man at the door! He’s coming in the house!’

“They said, “That’s not a man. That’s just Ken.’ ”

Ken and Judy met at Texas Instruments in Richardson, where they worked on the same line.

“I told Ken we had to wait to get married until my car was paid off,” Judy said. “A few days after that last payment, we married — Feb. 3, 1968, at West Side Church of Christ in Cleburne.”

They lived in an apartment in Garland at first and then rented a house there.

“I had commuted to Richardson from Cleburne — even had paid riders — for five years,” she said. “I wanted to get as close to work as I could.”

In 1972, they built their Cleburne home.

Cleburne had always been home to Judy.

She was born in Pilot Point on Jan. 25, 1945, and adopted by Weldon and Dorothy Garrett.

She lived in their home on the corner of South Caddo and Third Streets.

In 2000, Judy met her biological mother one month before her death.

Later she met her two sisters and a brother and is grateful to have them as a part of her life.

“I didn’t grow up with brothers and sisters, but we had lots of kids in our neighborhood. We didn’t have to decide whose yard to play in, as we were all together at Adams Elementary School,” she said. “My dog, Bones, walked to school with me everyday and came back in the afternoons to meet me. The teachers said they knew it was time for the bell to ring when they looked out the window and saw him waiting there for recess.”

She remembered Irna Alsup as her loving first-grade teacher.

She loved visiting Ruby Hinds’ home when she was her teacher.

“Her home had the thickest walls I had ever seen,” Judy said. “It later became the National Guard armory and had been built by cattleman Bob Gatewood.”

Like typical Cleburne students her age, she attended Fulton Junior High for grades 7 and 8 and became part of the house system at Cleburne High School.

“Doris Dunn, a senior, was my desk mate that first year. There was no hazing for freshmen in the house as it was a buddy system, instead. By the time you were a senior you were looked up to by the underclassmen.”

Although she especially enjoyed homemaking classes taught by Lucille Jordan, Mary Martin and Janelle Farrell, her high school years in Camp Fire were packed with memory-making events.

“Doris Lindville was my first leader, followed by Patty Jo McLean. We had so much fun together and learned many things.

“From the sixth grade through my senior year in high school, Bonnie Groves was our leader. She was a high spirited, adventurous, beautiful woman.”

In 1960, her Camp Fire group set a record on the Brazos River.

“We were the first girls to use the Boy Scout canoes anywhere in the state. We made the canoe trip down the Brazos River with Floyd and Frances Langford’s Boy Scout group.”

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas the Scouts killed a deer, and the Camp Fire girls brought the other food to celebrate their mutual love of the outdoors. They shared their meal together.

Her senior year in high school held the most excitement of all, she said.

“Vera Mangum was the Camp Fire director. We had asked Bonnie if we could visit New Orleans. We had raised the money, and so Mrs. Mangum gave us permission to make the trip, if she could accompany us.

“Mrs. Mangrum’s nephew was a university student in New Orleans, and she asked him to make contact with us. Not only did he come to visit us, but he brought college friends with him, and they escorted us to the Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel for dinner. We were all dressed up; we felt so special.”

Judy and Ken wanted Angie’s group to have good memories through Camp Fire, too.

Ken was on the board of directors. The couple enjoyed it all, working hard, transporting girls, setting up camp and planning activities.

Ken was surprised at one challenge the girls gave him.

“There were 13 of them by the time they were seniors,” he said. “They were planning their last ceremonial — how to tell the others goodbye. Usually it’s a final canoe ride. They wanted me to build something to make their ceremonial special.”

“We planned what we wanted: a big, floating fire in the middle of the lake with three huge stars, floating around it, representing our theme for camp, ‘Wish Upon a Star,’ ” Angie said. “We knew Daddy could do it.”

So Ken built a 4 foot by 4 foot steel platform with angle iron on its sides with floats underneath.

Three massive, battery-lit stars on separate floats surrounded the blazing fire.

“There at Glen Lake Methodist Camp, everyone sat on one side of the lake,” Angie said. “All the seniors canoed out, put their torches in the fire, and brought them back to the shore. It was the greatest thing Daddy could’ve built for us. We’ll never forget it.”

Judy continued to serve as a leader throughout the years. Angie did, too, directing her own daughter.

But in 2001, the fire needed stoking. Life almost ended for Judy.

“I was in an auto accident,” she said. “I was hit by an 18 wheeler and had serious injuries. I had resulting blood clots that require my taking medication for the rest of my life to keep my blood pressure extremely low. I knew I couldn’t continue to do many things I had done before.”

She wistfully remembers the years she taught outdoor dancing and swimming.

She recalled the day she proudly announced to her mother that she had become a river rat.

“My mother was shocked at those words and assumed it wasn’t a very nice thing to be. I told her that I had to live out in the woods for a week while the others stayed in an air-conditioned cabin to earn that title, and then she understood that I was so proud to be one.”

The Thiessens are members of Lebanon Baptist Church, where she is church secretary and preschool teacher. They have two granddaughters, Kaylee and JaNice Jay.

Judy assists Camp Fire leader Erica Moreno with a group of second-graders on Monday nights at the Camp Fire office.

She, a member of the board of directors and other alumni are working hard to keep the organization alive.

After 57 years, Judy Thiessen’s love of Camp Fire is still burning.



Larue Barnes may be reached at laruebarnes@yahoo.com.

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