Thelma Lee Ballew, 91, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to the union of Lalu Chenault and John Ballew. She was raised in Wyoming, Ohio and attended Oak Ave School. She departed this life into the arms of the Lord on May 18, 2021.
She was an excellent student and very good athlete who excelled in tennis and softball. She attended The Ohio State University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in education. She also attended Miami University earning a master’s degree in education.
Upon returning from Ohio State University, Thelma met her future husband Leroy O Johnson. They had a whirlwind union that lasted 27 years. Their union blessed them with 4 boys Tyler, Rodney, Ricardo and Gregory.
Thelma, aka Tiny to all her friends and family, was a business woman and a teacher. While substitute teaching, she and her sister Ophelia opened a beauty shop in Evanston, Ohio. She became everyone’s Cub Scout Den Mother. She was a Den Mother for 12 years from 1964 to 1976. She also had time to coach a little league baseball team, becoming the first African American woman head coach of a knothole baseball team in Cincinnati. She fought a lot of hatred and bigotry in that position from 1967-1969. Tiny was a devout Christian, being baptized at an early age. She attended Mt. Zion Baptist Church and later joined Zion Baptist Church. She served as the church trustee and you could often see her planting flowers around the church.
Thelma (Tiny) was proud to have worked for the United States Government for 38 years, 7 with the Internal Revenue Service, and 31 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA). Due to her determination and strong work ethic, she attained the position of deputy director of the Program Operations Office at the U.S. EPA’s Ridge Avenue facility. She and her team were responsible for the budget and planning operations for the U.S. EPA’s Industrial Environmental Research Laboratory’s research projects. Later in her career, she worked for the U.S. EPA’s Office of the Senior Official for Research and Development at the Andrew W. Breidenbach Environmental Research Center in Clifton. At this time, she was asked to head the Environmental Education Department, Center for Environmental Learning.
She fulfilled her dream working with a team from Miami University and EPA scientists and staff to develop a curriculum entitled “Always a River”. This curriculum inspired Thelma to organize a summer teacher’s program to educate teachers so they in turn could use the curriculum to teach their students about the importance of protecting our environment, the Ohio River and our water supplies. This led to the creation of a mobile teaching van and later a barge that turned into a floating classroom for students in grades K-12. The “Always A River” floating classroom began its education route in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and traveled all the way down river to Cairo, Illinois. Thelma remained in this position until the time of her retirement. Thelma was a Life Member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. She served as board member and first secretary of the Letteria Dalton Foundation, a charitable organization that provides scholarships to high school students in the Cincinnati area. She also served on several committees during her 42 years as a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc where she had the distinguished honor of being a Silver Star member.
Thelma worked very hard to start the first Alumni Association at the Oak Avenue School giving a voice to African Americans students of a segregated time. Never one to sit idly by, at the age of 52 Thelma became an avid snow skier! She swept down mountain sides, never once injuring herself. Among many of her other passions was fishing, reading, playing cards, traveling, as well as being a loyal Bengals and Reds fan. Her legacy of love and devotion to her family and friends will always be a treasured memory. Thelma was preceded in death by her husband Leroy Johnson and sisters, Ophelia Pugh, Jean Bailey, Arnetta Daniels and brother, Johnny Ballew.
She leaves to cherish her memory: Her loving sister Lula Samuels (Jim); four sons, Tyler (Brenda), Ricardo (Valerie), Rodney and Gregory (Dawana); 16 grandchildren, Chandler, Terria, DeShawn, Aarika, Tammy, Tiffany, Ricardo Jr., Laah, Imania, Charmin, Rodney Jr., Shannon, Sara, Jasmine, Christine, and Morgan; 30 great grandchildren, and a host of nieces, nephews and many friends she touched along the way.