As an eighth-grader at Creston Junior High, Thelda (Bender) Williams was surprised to win a special award.
“I won the ‘I Dare You Award,’ which said to the recipient — I dare you to go do something extraordinary with your life,” Williams said.
The 1959 Creston High School graduate did just that. She is serving the second of two stints as a member of the Phoenix, Ariz., City Council. In 1994, she was elected by the council to serve as interim mayor of the city of nearly 2 million residents after the resignation of Mayor Paul Johnson.
She served out that term, then chose to return to her council duties. She was defeated in the 1995 election and returned to work at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department, continuing her work in prisoner rehabilitation and development of a unit for inmate care of abused and neglected animals.
Having retired from the sheriff’s department in 2007, Williams was again elected to the Phoenix City Council and continues to hold that position, representing a population of 200,000 residents.
In recognition of her many accomplishments in Phoenix city government, as well as the local sheriff’s department, Williams will be inducted Friday in the Creston Community Schools Hall of Fame in the Distinguished Alumni category.
“I was stunned,” she said, when asked about her reaction at being informed by Bill Messerole, Creston High School principal. “I didn’t even know they had a hall of fame. I’m very honored, very proud of it.”
She and fellow inductees Tim Kenyon and the late Curt Olson will be honored during homecoming ceremonies 12:15 p.m. Friday at Creston High School. They were selected by a committee of school personnel and community members earlier in the year.
Retired Southwestern Community College math instructor Dee Ann Stults was a CHS classmate with both Williams and her husband, Melvin Williams, a retired Phoenix police officer.
“Thelda and I were the two girls in advanced math class with all the boys,” Stults said. “She always had ability.”
Williams did not enter politics that early. She was not a part of CHS student government. But she was active in vocal music, theater, GRA (Girls Recreation Association) and the school’s first Peppers dance team.
She was working in an Omaha meatpacking company’s office, where Melvin had a position with JC Penney Stores, when Melvin was transferred to Phoenix in 1971. He soon after switched careers to law enforcement there.
With her husband often working evenings, Thelda began coaching their daughters’ ball teams, and saw a need for better facilities. That was the seed that sprouted the career in public service she still maintains.
“I started lobbying the parks department and the city of Phoenix for ballfields,” Williams recalled. “Once I made a couple of appearances at city council meetings, I got involved as a neighborhood advocate, and it went from there.”
She already had leadership experience, serving as the first female member of the Nebraska State Teamsters Board while living in Omaha.
In Phoenix, she was soon involved in numerous boards and commissions while working for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department. The department gained national notoriety under the direction of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who promoted himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”
There were some controversies in Arpaio’s regime, including a well-publicized decision to require inmates to wear pink underwear. The use of pink soon spread to other facets of the county jail, including pink handcuffs.
“The inmates were stealing the underwear,” Williams said, “but (Arpaio) discovered they didn’t like stealing pink underwear. It saved about 300,000 pair a year that didn’t have to be replaced.”
Williams was the department’s custody support division commander, supervising more than 100 employees and 35 contract employees, as well as 650 jail volunteers.
The division provides more than 80 education, treatment and behavior-modification inmate programs. Among the programs Williams introduced was a MASH program that involved an in-jail, small-animal shelter for live evidence in animal cruelty cases. It also provided foster care for overflow animals from community rescue organizations.
“The sheriff and I were both animal lovers,” Williams said. “We got involved in abused animals, and had a special squad of detectives for animal abuse investigations. I created the inmate program to care for them. We converted an old jail into housing for the animals, and it’s still going today.”
Williams’ efforts to curb animal abuse also involved successful introduction of legislation to curb “horse tripping.”
“That was a practice in some off-sanctioned rodeos where the horses would run full-gallop and people would lasso their front feet,” Williams said. “It often killed them, and broke their legs. We got Arizona’s animal abuse laws strengthened.”
Another passion for Williams was gaining international air service to the greater Phoenix area.
“We worked very hard to achieve that for Sky Harbor (Airport),” Williams said. “We approached major airlines from Canada, Great Britain and Mexico. Now we’re one of the busiest airports in the world.”
During her first stint as a Phoenix councilwoman from 1989 to 1996, Williams became vice mayor in 1992 and found herself in the unexpected role of interim mayor in 1994.
“When Paul Johnson resigned, the council chose me to serve for nearly a year as interim mayor,” Williams said. “It actually happened a second time, but that was just for a week or two when I happened to be vice mayor.”
Williams did not feel inclined to run for mayor as a candidate for a full term.
“The big difference between being a council person and a mayor is, as a council member you are kind of the mini-mayor of your district,” she said. “But as mayor, you’re kind of on a bully pulpit with much greater responsibilities. It was a fantastic experience, though, and we accomplished our goals.”
Those included a small business office for the city of Phoenix, passage of a desert-preserve ordinance, an extensive child-abuse campaign and the strengthened animal-abuse legislation.
Williams was again elected to the Phoenix City Council in 2007.
“I still have two years left on this term, and I can run for another four-year term,” she said, explaining there is a three-consecutive term limit.
But, even then, there will likely be many city boards and commissions that will benefit from Williams’ contributions. She’s not one to sit idle at home, if there’s something that can be done to improve the local quality of life.
“I like to make things happen,” she said. “I believe strongly in neighborhoods and helping people. I enjoy solving problems.”
Her message to current high school students is to believe that paths to success can run from a small southwest Iowa school to one of the nation’s largest cities.
“Appreciate the education you’re getting in Creston,” she said. “You can use it anywhere in the world.”