Former university first lady dies


Thelma Plane Payton, the daughter of the late Henry Plane, Sr. and Florence Watson Plane, was born on March 1, 1932 in Evanston, IL. She died on June 20, 2013 at the Gulf Coast Medical Center in Fort Myers, Florida.

While growing up in Evanston, IL, she did well academically and graduated from Evanston Township High School in 1950. She then matriculated at Tennessee State University in Nashville, TN receiving a Bachelor of Science degree (Sociology) in 1954. She subsequently entered the Columbia University Graduate School of Social Work in New York City where, in 1959, she was awarded the Master of Science degree in Social Work.

Thelma developed rapidly into a dedicated, highly competent and mature professional in the fields of psychiatric social work, family practice, and social work education. She performed these services in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, New York, South Carolina and Washington, DC for organizations such as family and child development agencies, Head Start and colleges and universities. She worked as a tireless advocate for children and families throughout her 30+ years career in social work.

She and Benjamin Franklin Payton first met each other in 1958 while both were graduate students at Columbia University; they were married in 1959 at The Riverside Church in New York City. Their relationship spanned nearly 54 years of deeply engaged and fruitful service to individuals, communities and institutions as well as an abiding love for each other and their children. During the course of her husband’s 33 years as President of both Benedict College (SC) and Tuskegee University (AL), Thelma was a gracious, talented, warm and effective First Lady for both institutions, and always worked creatively and energetically to help put the needs and concerns of students first.

Thelma was an active member of many community organizations, including Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. as well as The Links, Inc. She and her family became faithful church members in every community in which they resided: Riverside in NY, Dexter Avenue in New Haven, CT, Shiloh in DC, First Calvary in Columbia, SC, Union Baptist in Stamford, CT; Greenwood in Tuskegee; and Friendship in Ft. Myers, FL. Thelma was baptized as a child in the Second Baptist Church of Evanston, IL, and she and her husband saw to it that their two children were baptized and provided instruction in the Christian faith by the churches to which they belonged.

Thelma was an enthusiastic traveler, and especially enjoyed accompanying her husband on business trips across the country and in many foreign lands. She also appreciated the relaxation of being on the beach with family and friends. An accomplished artist, Thelma painted beautiful watercolor nature scenes. She was also an avid reader, who enjoyed many genres including cultural history, mystery and suspense. But, the campus enterprise to which she gave her greatest devotion was The Tuskegee University Choir. Their performances in Chapel and in concerts absolutely enthralled her and she labored to show her appreciation in many ways. In her 28 years as First Lady, she never missed a Concert until she became ill in her last year.

Thelma was preceded in death by her brother, Henry Plane, Jr. She leaves to cherish her memory a loving husband, Dr. Benjamin F. Payton of Estero, FL; a son, Mark S.(Christiane) Payton of Yamhill, OR; a daughter, Deborah E. Payton of Atlanta, GA; four grandchildren: Danielle, Maya, William and Nicholas Payton; a niece, Christine Neal and two nephews Jeffrey Plane and Kenneth Plane, as well as many loving cousins, other relatives and friends.

A funeral service will be held in the Tuskegee University Chapel on the campus of Tuskegee University at 11:00am on Thursday, June 27, 2013; interment will follow immediately in The Tuskegee University Historical Cemetery.

Flowers may be sent to: Peoples Funeral Home, 500 Fonville Street, Tuskegee, AL 36083. Cards & letters of condolence may be sent to the Payton residence: 20200 Chapel Trace, Estero, Florida 33928.

Those wishing to make memorial donations are invited to contribute to the Benjamin F. and Thelma P. Payton Endowed Scholarship Fund for Tuskegee Students. Checks, earmarked for that purpose, should to be made payable to Tuskegee University and mailed to the Office of the Comptroller, Attn: Glen Dickerson, 112 Kresge Center, Tuskegee University, 1200 W. Montgomery Road, Tuskegee, AL 36088.

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