UCF Celebrates Women’s History Month – Ms. Judy Thames


President, The Learning Institute for Elders at UCF

What is your current job title and responsibilities ?
President, The Learning Institute For Elders at the University of Central Florida (LIFE@UCF). LIFE@UCF was established in 1991 in a unique partnership with UCF to provide non-credit life-long learning experiences for adults age 50+ . We work together in the pursuit of providing quality life-long learning classes and opportunities for elders in Central Fl to fully engage in UCF as older students.  As President, I provide overall leadership and direction to an 18-member, all volunteer, Board of Directors and various committees established to assure excellent and varied educational classes for our 575 members during the fall and spring semesters. We work with the University and various Colleges within the University to assure the opportunity for Life members to fully participate in all the opportunities the University provides to its students regardless of age.

An important part of how we give back to the university is through our grants and awards program ($500,000 in our 24 years); participating as subjects in university research projects and through participation and support for University events, special lectures, etc. Our academic sponsor is the College of Undergraduate Studies/Interdisciplinary Studies (USIS); Our LIFE Liaison, appointed by USIS and approved through our 10-Year Partnership Agreement with UCF, is Dr. Richard Tucker, Professor Emeritus, Psychology.

I was elected to the LIFE board in 2011, became VP in 2012, and President in 2013. Particular moments of achievement in these positions include:  Coordinator of first formal relationship with The Office of Diversity and Inclusion resulting in support for their Legacy  program and October programing for Diversity Week; formal support for Knights-Helping-Knights, both with funding and highly effective food bank drives; launched first outside event with Dept. of Transportation’s CarFit program and our PT/OT students and UCF police,  to help older drivers go through an adjustment of their bodies to their automobiles for safety and lengthening of ability to drive.

 What is your history at UCF and before UCF?
I graduated from UCF as an older woman in 1973 with BA in Sociology, minor in Psychology. I continued my involvement with UCF throughout my professional career by helping to develop the first community network of senior services working with UCF colleges to obtain interns for various programs. First job, after graduation, was as founding social worker to develop Meals on Wheels Program for Orange County. I Applied for and obtain the first Older American Act Grant to develop the program. Hired first Social Worker from UCF to do the casework to help set up the program. I became Director of meals on Wheels Program and Development, Associate Director of the Christian Service Center (1973 – 1981).

While at UCF I was a student intern in Sociology charged with doing the research on developing a Social Work Program. Those skills helped me in writing for many grants for seniors during my career.  I was also awarded the first UCF Sociology Fellowship which allowed me, as a single mom, to continue my education and graduate.  I continued to be associated with UCF through being a guest lecturer  for classes dealing with aging services, developing continuum of care service networks and presenting opportunities for Students looking for career paths, particularly in the area of political advocacy to accomplish the goals of helping create the needed services.

 As Director of the area agency on aging, under the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council (1981-1992), I was charged with developing, planning and contracting for community based services to fill home and community service needs for seniors in a four county area.  In this position, I was able to work with various UCF professors on program research concerning senior needs, developing need assessment tools, program experiments to meet those needs and again was a guest lecturer.

As CEO/Executive Director of the independent Area Agency on Aging (aka Senior Resource Alliance from 1992-1999), I continued to utilize both UCF student interns, and help from professors to better design programs to meet community based services.  As a board member of several organizations including the Winter Park Health Foundation and chair of The Mayor’s Senior Advisory Board I continued to put forth UCF in partnering with community organizations on behalf of both active and frail elders and work with UCF PT students in developing our senior center network. In these positions we utilized UCF to help develop Health and Wellness activities and programs using students not only in the activities but to help train older people on the computer; developed an effective political advocacy effort to enhance transportation options for older people; and involved City and County administrators in support activities for older adults.

I retired in late 1999 and became involved in statewide issues through AARP. I helped develop the first Statewide Board for AARP, chaired a legislative agenda to improve NH conditions for elders, transportation issues, and active training of local volunteers to be advisors on senior issues to local advocates and politicians. I became State President of AARP and served for 6 years. I also chaired two national AARP committees in Washington, DC on improvement in housing design and options for seniors; and improved transportation programs and Long Term Care services.

Upon retirement, a UCF scholarship fund was established in my name and through the efforts of my husband and I, it is now fully endowed. The Judith  G. Thames Scholarship fund  focuses on student support for those with an interest in aging issues.

My history with UCF also includes receiving UCF’s Professional Alumnus Award from the School of Social Work in the mid-1990s and The Professional Achievement Award from COHPA in 2011.  I treasure both of these.  Other treasured awards, which included letters of recommendation from UCF professors, include the prestigious State AARP Andrus Award for outstanding Community Service. This was the first couple award ever given and it was to both my husband and I; the other dual award, for us both, was from the Southern Gerontological Society in 2005 for outstanding Advocacy on behalf of older adults.

What is your academic background?
Valencia College, AA Summa Cum Laude, 1970;
UCF BA. Summa Cum Laude, 1973;
UCF post-graduate work, 1975-1978, including leadership courses, public administration, gerontology, public relations; (always regretted not being able to continue as job responsibilities and parenting of two active teen age boys took center stage).
Selected as one of 35 leaders in the nation to attend The National Leadership Institute on Aging in administration of effective leadership methods to advance aging programs.

What is your favorite UCF memory?
There are several but a few are outstanding: Graduated in 1973 in August when the pool was drained to accommodate President Nixon as our commencement speaker. His perspiration problem created a “whole new look” for a drenching wet suit, did I mention it was August.

Being selected for The Professional Achievement Award from COHPA, it was a memorable evening!

Having a scholarship established in my name at UCF that would continuing helping students struggling with costs (my husband T. Byron Thames has been very supportive of this scholarship); and finally watching the University I love grow into a prestigious university recognized nationwide, noted for its growth, educational excellence, and it’s unique Partnership with a number of community organizations including it’s wonderful partnership with LIFE@UCF.

If you could change one thing at UCF, what would it be? ($ and time no object)
While progress has been made in many important areas and disciplines at UCF, aging issues are not a priority center of learning, and research. I’d like to see that changed by advancing the Field of Aging as an interdisciplinary effort that would result in a Center (dare I say a building) for Aging including research, career paths, and a place for LIFE@UCF.

What is one piece of advice you would like to share with your colleagues?
Trite as it may be, Never Give Up on achieving your dreams, goals, programs, research. Find your passion and develop a network of likeminded people and go for it.  My grandmother (with her third grade education) always told me if something doesn’t work one way, try another until you make it happen.  I was a first of my family to graduate high school, to go to college, to graduate, to have a professional career.

If UCF was going to name something in your honor, what would you like it to be and why?
I would like to see my scholarship fund increased to endow a Chair for Aging Studies.

If you could have lunch with anyone at UCF (who you do not normally eat lunch with), who would you choose and why?
I would love to have lunch with Dr. and Mrs Hitt.  I so admire what he has done through his ability to bring many different people to the table to address needs and issues and go forth to make the dreams a reality.  Martha serves as an ex-officio member of the LIFE Board and her encouragement, advice, and involvement in UCF is such an inspiration to me.

Who at UCF would you like to thank for your success?
Pivotal in my life at both the university and in my community and state career is Dr. Richard Tucker who not only helped me at the university but served on a number of community and state boards with me. He was the President of my SRA Board when I retired and instrumental in establishing the startup of my scholarship. Dick always was so encouraging in helping to find the right people to accomplish our goals. He continues in that role as LIFE’s UCF Liaison.  His interaction with students, professors, and community leaders has had a tremendous impact on me.

Name and describe a teacher or researcher from your past who truly inspired you and why.
Dr. William Allen, Sociology and then Social Work. His passion for developing a School of Social Work gave me an opportunity as a student assistant to learn the value of research to put together relevant proposals to accomplish the goal. He helped me be a good social worker and a better community organizer. He showed me the value of helping to develop, through community actions, services and programs beyond what one could accomplish individually.

What undergraduate or graduate class/program/experience inspired you the most and why?
Anthropology, prior to social work, had a course on Community Systems that really opened my horizons to understand that one could impact whole systems on behalf of elders. The role of effective advocacy was exciting. My class project interviewing local movers and shakers, including politicians and Agency Directors, helped me to see they were accessible and interested giving the right facts and figures.

What is your favorite restaurant or food?
Two that are very different but my favs: Seasons 52 and Chili’s.

What is your favorite movie, book or music?
I use to like heavy message oriented films. As I have gotten older I find it necessary to laugh along with a message.  My current favorite movie is, “As Good As It Gets.” It is really funny with a social message.  On books, I like to escape in a good mystery novel or a historical novel. “A Land Remembered” is the history of Florida through the eyes of a family over several generations.
On music, I am a product of my age:  Love the 40s jazz and big band era; also the growth of Rock and Roll in the 50s.

What is your favorite vacation destination?
Love New Orleans (not during Mardi Gras).  Full of history, great food, music and its own ambience.
Also love our home in the woods of South Carolina that we get to visit several times a year. Two very different vacations but both wonderful.