If you live in Greenville or have ever worked in the Madison County school system, there's a good chance you have met Matilda Thomas, known by many as "Mrs. Tilly." The 88 year-old Thomas is a Greenville native who has devoted her life to her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Thomas learned the value of being devoted to others through the example of her grandmother, who took her under her wing. Her mother, Catherine Ferguson, had her when she was only 15 years old and was not prepared for the responsibility of raising a child. "I thank God for my grandmother," said Thomas. "She did a good job of sharing her wisdom and knowledge of God with me."
As Thomas got older, she began working in the tobacco and cotton fields of Greenville, while continuing to go to school. Thomas was one of the first to graduate from the Greenville Training School in 1949. She soon began raising a family of her own, having her first child when she was 19. "After that, we went on and on having more children," said Thomas, who eventually bore 12 children.
Tragedy struck the Thomas household in 1978, when her husband died after a battle with cancer. Thomas was left with eight children and a grandchild to raise. Her youngest child was only four months old at the time. "This was a very hard time for me," said Thomas. "Through it all, I stayed with God and I'm still standing with God, because He is the only one for me." There is no doubt that God has been with Thomas, who was accustomed to walking six miles to work for 65 cents an hour at a local sawmill. "I wanted the best for my family," said Thomas. "I gave them the best of my life. I don't drink, smoke or party. Well, I do party, but only with Jesus." Thomas still faithfully attends Bible studies, Sunday School and church services. She rejoices that most of her children are active in church today.
Getting an education has always been a crucial aspect of the training that Thomas instilled into her family. "All my kids got their education," said Thomas. "Most of them missed very few days of school. I have one that didn't miss any days of school." Even now, Thomas has two great-grandchildren who are dropped off at her home early every school morning so they can ride the bus to school and she picks them up when the after school program is over at 5:30 p.m. As she did with her kids and grandchildren, Thomas stays involved in making sure things go well at school.
Thomas has attended Greenville town council meetings for many years, making a point to stay active in her community. She was in a recent meeting when the discussion turned to Sunday sales of alcohol. "I'm a church lady," said Thomas. "I'll leave that to y'all."
There have been many things that Thomas has left to others, especially if it was negative. Growing up as a black woman gave her many opportunities to deal with racism and name calling. Yet, Thomas was determined to remain unaffected by it. "I would tell them, 'Those are your words, not mine,'" said Thomas. "I'm not letting that poison inside my head." The ability to rise above such negativity has allowed Thomas to lead a busy and fulfilling life, full of love and service to others. Some of that love pours out in the form of simple wisdom. "I tell kids to work and make whatever money you can until you can do better," said Thomas. "Five dollars in your hand is better than nothing in your hand."
Thomas is well known for stopping the young people who pass her home, saying, "Come here for a minute." One such passerby said, with a beautiful smile, "We know when Mrs. Tilly says that, we are gonna be there for at least an hour. But, it will be a great hour because she is so encouraging and she even helped me to get back in church." That encouragement and contagious energy that Thomas exudes begins early each morning and is with her as she parties with Jesus through each busy day. Some folks who pass her way are met with some of her delicious cooking. If you are lucky, she might share some of her amazing bread pudding with you. Whatever she may offer those who meet her, one thing will definitely be made clear. "God has it under control. He takes care of everything. Be thankful for what you have and enjoy your life," said Thomas.
These words flow like a river from Thomas's lips and it is evident that she has lived her life by them. She has mothered many children in Greenville and the community is blessed that Matilda Thomas is a beacon of light in this sweet town.