Thelma Rice, South Sider who moved alone to New Mexico in her 80s to live like artist Georgia O’Keeffe, dies at 96

Mrs. Rice dreamed of things and then did them. She also wore a single glove before Michael Jackson.

SHARE Thelma Rice, South Sider who moved alone to New Mexico in her 80s to live like artist Georgia O’Keeffe, dies at 96
Thelma Rice

Thelma Rice


Because she always wanted to live like the famous artist Georgia O’Keeffe, Thelma Rice, alone and at age 84, moved from the South Side to the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

She tried the move a few years earlier, with her husband, Fred Rice.

They were both pensioners. He’d been superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. She had a long career teaching special education in Hammond, Indiana.

The couple bought property, but the elevation made it too hard for her husband to breathe. He’d long battled lung cancer.

After the disease claimed his life in 2011, Mrs. Rice returned to New Mexico by herself.

“She had a beautiful home, and she collected antique furniture and art,” her daughter Judy Rice said. “And she idolized the artwork of Georgia O’Keeffe and what she knew of her life.”

O’Keeffe, an artist originally from Wisconsin, lived in New Mexico and drew inspiration from its rugged landscape and natural beauty.

Mrs. Rice, a devout Catholic, joined a church, made friends, started a bridge group and communed with nature.

Mrs. Rice died Dec. 27 after battling dementia. She was 96.

The couple raised Judy and their son, Charlie, in the Chatham neighborhood. After retiring, they moved to their dream home — a gut-rehab Tudor-style house on a secluded street nestled in the Dan Ryan Woods in the Beverly neighborhood.

“My mother always taught me, ‘Never be satisfied with where you are — you’re always looking for the next thing to do and your next goal,’” said her daughter, a Cook County judge.

Her children persuaded Mrs. Rice to move back home in 2017 when she was 91.

“She got in a car accident and sat on the road for three hours, and nobody came,” her daughter said. “And she finally got her senses enough to drive herself home, and it scared me enough that I said, ‘You can’t be in an area that remote by yourself.’ And she said, ‘I live with nature, look at the mountains, the birds. I love it here.’ And I reminded her that even Georgia O’Keeffe had someone living with her.”

Her friend Linda Hall said Mrs. Rice had the spirit of an artist and a “mystique and aura about her.”

“She was progressive and forward-thinking from the day I met her in the ’80s. She wore a glove like Michael Jackson, but before Michael Jackson, a black lace glove with the fingers cut out that was so glamorous,” Hall said. “She was different, very cool. And even in her 80s and 90s, she never dressed like an old lady. She was artsy, ageless and timeless.”

Upon her return from New Mexico, Mrs. Rice moved into a condo in Hinsdale.

Hall visited, and Mrs. Rice implored her with a smile to come see her “new baby.”

“She walked me into the parking garage, and there was a new lime green Volkswagen bug,” she said. “It was so Thelma!”

Raised in Arkansas and Texas, Mrs. Rice moved north as part of the Great Migration of Blacks looking for opportunity and a better life.

Thelma Rice

Thelma Rice


“The South made her a really strong person because in the ’30s and ’40s it was very segregated, and she always knew she wanted an education and more for herself,” her daughter said.

Mrs. Rice encouraged her husband to enroll in Roosevelt University to complete his bachelor’s degree and earn a master’s.

“He wouldn’t have done that if my mother hadn’t have pushed him, and she encouraged him to take the exams in the police department to keep moving up,” she said, noting he became the city’s first Black permanent superintendent under Mayor Harold Washington.

After retiring from the police department, Mr. Rice taught at the University of Illinois and agreed to do an exchange program to teach at Cairo University in Egypt.

“My parents both went. I have a picture of my mom riding a camel,” her daughter said.

“She was a person who felt, ‘If you can imagine it, you can do it,’” she said.

Mrs. Rice is also survived by two grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Services have been held.

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