Brandon woman killed in crash is remembered as a giver
BRANDON — A pillar of the Brandon and Forest Dale communities was tragically killed last week, but hundreds of people who knew and loved Maxine Thurston put aside their grief to celebrate her life on Sunday.
Thurston, 81, co-owner of New England Woodcraft in Forest Dale, was killed on Thursday, June 13, in a head-on collision while driving on Route 7 near Otter Valley Union High School.
Brandon Police Chris Brickell said Thurston was driving her silver Volvo station wagon north on Route 7 at about 9 a.m. that day when she crossed the center line and hit a tractor-trailer head-on.
The truck driver, Paul Johnson, 61, of Oswego, N.Y., was shaken up but not injured.
Brickell said the accident could have been much worse; a vehicle with a passenger was traveling south in front of the tractor-trailer. Brickell said that driver told him he saw Thurston’s car coming toward him across the centerline, but was able to pull over to the shoulder and out of the way.
That portion of Route 7 from just south of Otter Valley north to the Brandon Fire Station was widened and improved in 2011.
“He pulled off the road without hitting the guardrail so (Thurston) wouldn’t hit him,” Brickell said. “This accident could have been even worse if he hadn’t had the room on the shoulder to pull out of the way.”
Thurston had to be cut out of her car by rescue workers from the Brandon and Pittsford fire departments. The Brandon Area Rescue Squad responded, as well as the Vermont State Police accident reconstruction team.
Brickell said Thurston died as rescue workers tried to stabilize her for a medi-vac helicopter trip to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. She was transported by ambulance to Rutland Regional Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.
Witnesses reported seeing Thurston slumped over the steering wheel just before the crash, leading to speculation that she may have suffered some kind of medical event. An autopsy was performed, but Brickell said it would be several weeks before the results would be available.
But despite the circumstances of Thurston’s death, the pall of tragedy was lifted during a Celebration of Life event at the Brandon Inn on Sunday to honor Thurston’s memory.
A LINE OUT THE DOOR
On Sunday, there was a line out the door of the inn and onto Park Street as hundreds of neighbors, employees, community members, friends and acquaintances waited to sign the guest book and pay their respects to Thurston’s husband, Harmon, and the rest of the Thurston family. Local musician and composer Gene Childers and his Dixieland band played rousing ragtime favorites on the inn’s porch as people waited patiently to get inside. It was a party atmosphere, and everyone who knew Thurston said that’s what she would have wanted.
“She’s one of those people that make a community, an integral part of what a town is,” said Dr. Bill Barrett. “And this is her, having a party, not a funeral.”
The last of those in line finally got inside at 6:15 p.m. — more than two hours after the scheduled 4 p.m. start time. Hundreds milled around the first floor of the inn enjoying food and drink, and there hasn’t been a more homogenous group of people assembled in Brandon in a long time. That’s because Thurston touched so many people. She was a giver. She is known for her countless charitable donations to everything from the Brandon Town Hall to the local food shelf to the senior center, and much more.
Maxine and Harmon Thurston started New England Woodcraft in the 1950s. The company manufactures furniture often found in dormitories, municipal offices, schools and libraries. The company currently employs more than 100 people at the facility in Forest Dale.
Dennis Marden, president of the Friends of the Brandon Town Hall, said anytime anyone asked Maxine Thurston for something, she would give it them. She donated yards and yards of fabric for the curtains on the enormous windows in the town hall. She donated countless bookcases and television stands for silent auctions and other local fundraisers
“Whenever we had a fundraiser, she was always the first to contribute,” Marden said.
And that goes for Harmon Thurston as well.
“They just enjoyed what other people did for the town, it wasn’t just them,” Marden said. “And they never wanted any credit.”
Again and again, that sentiment was repeated on Sunday at the Brandon Inn. Daughter-in-law Martha Thurston said she and the rest of the family had a feeling that many in the community would attend a celebration of Thurston’s life.
“I suspected,” she said with a smile. “We had to convince Harmon, but I’m glad we did … She got around, that lady. She wanted to help everybody, especially kids.”
In fact, Thurston donated all of the furniture in the Neshobe Elementary School library 20 years ago. More recently, it was discovered that she also donated all of the wooden file cabinets for the new Brandon Police Station on Forest Dale Road, which opened last year.
“She never looked back,” Martha Thurston said. “She never had any regrets. She’ll be missed. She touched a lot of people. She was quite a lady.”
Kathy Mathis is the director of the Brandon Area Food Shelf and chair of the Brandon Senior Center. She said neither institution, especially the food shelf, would exist were it not for Thurston’s generosity.
“She either knew or saw hunger in her life,” Mathis said, “and wanted to be a major player and take care of people who were hungry in town.”
Mathis said Thurston donated thousands of dollars over the years to fund the 400 Christmas and Easter food baskets given out to those in need each year. In fact, memorial contributions in Thurston’s name are to be sent to benefit the Brandon Area Food Shelf.
“Every person who gets a Christmas or Easter food basket should thank Maxine Thurston, because without her, they wouldn’t happen,” Mathis said. “I’ll miss her, I’ll miss her stories.”
Mathis’ husband, Bill, also knew Thurston for many years and said she was one of a kind.
“A great benefactor, a great human being,” he said. “She was always laughing and smiling. She was so upbeat and donated so many things. She was a giant of our town, and of our time. I don’t know anybody that comes close.”
A SERVICE WITH A SMILE
When the remembrance portion of Sunday’s celebration of life finally began, it did not disappoint. Thurston was an active member of the Brandon United Methodist Church, and Pastor Key Bevan said the blessing.
Thurston’s sister Frances Kerchener was the first to speak, telling a story about when they were kids. Things like sugar and gasoline were hard to come by during the rationing years of World War II, she said, so it was pretty exciting when their mother won a five-pound bag of sugar in a raffle.
“I was picturing all of the cookies and cakes,” Kerchener said, “when Maxine jumped up and said, ‘We don’t need that sugar! Give it to someone else!’ She never did learn to keep quiet!”
Kerchener then summed up everyone else’s feelings.
“We are all sad about losing Maxine, because it feels too soon,” she said. “But this is certainly the way she wanted to go. She always lived life to the fullest and said to be your best every day.”
A highlight of the remembrances came from longtime family friend Bonnie Baird. Alternately fighting tears and laughing throughout, Baird shared “15 Things Maxine Taught Me,” among them:
• Eat more ice cream, and lots of M&M’s, adding that Thurston always had M&M’s stashed in the pockets of her car doors.
• Have a paper route. It gets you up early.
• Travel light so you can bring home things for others.
• LL Bean makes comfortable clothes, and they CAN be fashionable.
• Bookstores are really candy shops.
• Be authentic, never pretentious and laugh a lot.
Baird said she met Thurston after befriending daughter Lynn when she was 13.
“I had never met a mother like her,” Baird said with a tearful smile. “She was unconventional, loud, fun and she had a paper route. Maxine didn’t see the void, she saw the possibilities. She was an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things.”
See an obituary for Maxine Thurston on Page 6A. Donations in her memory can be made to the Brandon Area Food Shelf, P.O. Box 345, Brandon, VT 05733.
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