Susan Doelger, Founding Trustee

Susan Doelger, the driving force behind the creation of the Thelma Doelger Trust for Animals, passed away on March 25, 2017. Susan’s daughter, Katherine Doelger, has taken her place as a Trustee.

Susan Doelger grew up in a household filled with animals. Over the years, her family rescued all kinds of animals – cats, dogs, monkeys, a rabbit, a pigeon and even a deer.

Thelma Doelger, Susan’s mother, died in 1983. The trust she had formed, the Thelma Doelger Charitable Trust, continued to make donations to local organizations consistent with the wishes of her husband, Henry Doelger, but did not donate a large percentage to animal charities.

Susan became concerned that animal-related organizations were not receiving support from the Charitable Trust in proportion to her mother’s fervent desire to help all animals. In 1999, a legal settlement divided the original trust into two trusts. Susan stepped into the role of primary Trustee for the newly formed Thelma Doelger Trust for Animals.

Susan Doelger’s studies in anthropology and her 15 years of experience on the boards of the Charitable Trust and other organizations served her well in the new role. She believed the mission of the Thelma Doelger Trust for Animals embodied her mother’s vision of a resource in perpetuity for the causes she held so dear. Susan’s personal love of all creatures and her understanding of the balance of nature informed the Thelma Doelger Trust for Animals in its endeavors to support companion animals, wild animals and farmed animals, in recognition of the interdependence of all life on earth.

Thelma Doelger

Susan Doelger remembering her mother, Thelma Doelger, on June 9, 2009

Thelma Doelger in her late 30sMy mother, Thelma Allen Tharp, was born July 12, 1898. She was never able to locate a record of her birth because her father, John Tharp, was in the US Cavalry and traveled extensively. He was stationed in the Dakota Territory at the time of her birth. This may have been her birthplace although no records could be found. More likely she was born in Massachusetts, a much safer place for a mother to give birth in those days. In any case, she told me her earliest memories were in Massachusetts; specifically she remembered Worcester.

Her love of animals, especially primates, started, as she recalls, after moving to the Philippines as a very young girl – probably 3 or 4-years-old. She said her father was in the “Constabulary” stationed there to control the “Moros” after the Spanish/ American War. She recalled that there were monkeys living in the trees all around the military compound and many came down for treats to be fed to them. One of them eventually became her special ‘pet’ who perched on her tiny shoulders, and although always free to come and go, stayed with her at night. My mother was captivated for the rest of her life.

One of her earliest memories in the Philippines is of her mother being very worried when her father did not arrive home when expected. She clearly remembered riding on horseback with her mother, Binnie, into the jungle with a military contingent, to locate him. Although she did not actually remember finding him, apparently they did, because she continued to live there with her family until she graduated from high school (a boarding school for military children in Bagio). Her younger brother, Milton, and a sister who died as a child, were born there.

In about 1916 her parents separated and Thelma moved with her mother and brother to Santa Rosa, California. She attended secretarial school – she remembered getting typing awards – and then got her first job with none other than Luther Burbank. She recalled him well and remained friends with his much younger wife for many years. She recalled visiting Mrs. Burbank when her husband became deathly ill; her memory is that he died of complications from uncontrollable hiccups. She recalled how terrible her memory was of the sounds as doctors worked furiously to try to save him. These efforts failed and he died in 1926.

Although remaining friends, she did not work long for the Burbanks. She was anxious to get out on her own and move to the excitement and opportunity of San Francisco. She wanted to be in the movies and actually had a minor part in a silent film. But that career did not appeal to her and she was then hired by the former Russian Consul General in San Francisco to write his memoirs after the Bolshevik Revolution (this seems in retrospect to be quite unbelievable but she had worked for Luther Burbank so she did have a good reference!). Presumably this Russian Consul General was out of a job by 1917 or 1918. Later she worked for a time at the San Francisco Credit Bureau. It was at that time she met my father, Henry Doelger.

Henry Doelger took one look at my young mother, petite (4″10″), blond and as beautiful as a movie star. She was also an extremely intelligent woman and a crack secretary. She was immediately drawn to the tall and handsome young Henry, who “always had money in his pocket.” She then told me “she knew he was going to be a success at whatever he did.” At that time she recalled him being a shoe salesman, among other things. He also sold tamales at Kezar Stadium. He actually made the tamales and Mom cleaned up the tamale cart, a job she hated and said she often did in tears!

Henry moved the young Thelma Tharp into his widowed mother, Julia’s, house. His intention was to marry her but my mother grew impatient living with her future mother-in-law and finally gave Henry an ultimatum: We get married now or I’m leaving!

So, January 25, 1921, they married in San Mateo County. My father recalled that they got married in San Mateo County to keep their marriage out of the San Francisco paper. He laughingly recalled this in much later years, “Now why on earth would I want to keep it secret??!!”

As an insight into my mother’s character, she laughingly recalled to me an incident when she was newly married and trying to put together a household. She only had a limited amount of money and had a choice to buy a beautiful bedspread or sheets and towels. She bought the bedspread. The only thing she could cook was omelets.

A still life oil painting of a copper cup and pitcher on a table with vegetables, painted by Thelma Doelger

In 1921, the 18th Amendment had passed, and Prohibition was in full swing. As both my parents recalled, Washington, D.C. was a long way away, and San Franciscans went underground and simply ignored the law. It is important to note that in San Francisco at that time, the population was largely made up of Irish, Italian, German and Chinese-Americans, many of whom did not speak English – and, like Grandmother Doelger – never learned. Drinking various forms of alcohol was a part of their respective cultures and Prohibition seemed ridiculous.

In that spirit, my Dad figured he could make a lot of money “importing” whiskey and selling it to wholesale clients in San Francisco. Thelma was all for it and they went into business. Mom recalled that they used to pick up shipments of Canadian whiskey from Half Moon Bay. They traveled by night down Highway 1 with the headlights off. My mother recalls riding on the running board on the cliff side to make sure they didn’t plunge to their deaths! Although now built with a sturdy guardrail, Highway 1 is still an exciting ride.

They sold whiskey to the best hotels and Mom and Dad made a fortune. Mom, a gifted pianist, kept the cash in her upright piano. They made a fortune and had a great time doing it. Proud of his otherwise law-abiding behavior, my father never spoke much of his experiences bootlegging.

Mom, however, thought her bootlegging days were quite exciting! Eventually, however, Federal Agents arrived in San Francisco. As my mother recalled, she was carrying a case of whiskey up the steps of the Fairmont Hotel when she heard the Federal Agents coming. My father, who had already delivered his case, watched through a window in horror as my mother shimmied around one of the pillars – holding a case of whiskey – to avoid detection. He rushed out, she recalls, grabbed her, and they ran. He was so terrified that he gave away whatever was left of that shipment and never sold another drop again. I might add, I don’t remember either of my parents drinking at home at all, until much later when fine wines came into fashion in the late 1950’s.

My Dad told me he was a millionaire by the age of 30 (in 1926). So after quitting bootlegging, my parents started buying and selling real estate. In spite of the Crash in 1929, real estate, especially vacant lots, was booming. Dad was the salesman and Mom the able office manager. She told me she also did minor plumbing and electrical repairs on the apartment they owned. As a girl, I remember her making repairs at the family ranch. And in spite of Dad’s embarrassment and disapproved, Mom kept her tool box right up to the day she died.

It was early in their marriage that my parents began to have ‘pets,’ mostly dogs. My Dad was as loving as my Mom towards these animals and they both recalled fondly names and adventures they had with various pets. They were always a part of the family, lounged on the furniture and slept in bed with them.

The real estate crash came in 1935, and my parents were left with vacant lots they couldn’t sell. That’s when my father got into the building business and never looked back. He again started making a lot of money and my parents were among the unofficial “royalty” in San Francisco known as the “Cafe Society.”

 Thelma Doelger in fancy dress looks out the window of a Wells fargo statecoach at her husband Henry Doelger

Mom became a woman of leisure, wearing her fabulous gowns, diamonds and furs to all the San Francisco events. Their movements, for better or worse, were faithfully recorded by Herb Cain, later called “Mr. San Francisco,” in his famous gossip column in the SF Chronicle. Thelma and Henry were a success story.

It was during this time that my mother tried a brief stint at volunteering for Pets Unlimited. On at least one occasion (being small, strong, agile and good with tools) she broke into a back yard to rescue a dog cruelly chained there. I think she may have done this more than once but seeing the suffering of animals was too much for her and she did not continue.

At home, my mother (now raising my brother Michael and me) had more time to devote to her passion for animals. She always had monkeys, until one of them escaped and bit her quite badly. My last memory of “Buttons” was of him swinging on the huge, very ornate crystal chandelier that hung down from the top of the two story foyer. I was delighted as Buttons ripped off the crystals and threw them down!

At that time, my mother also had Great Danes, a breed she loved and had owned for many years. I never remember her weighing more than 90 pounds, so when she took five Great Danes for a walk, it was quite a sight. They were always gentle and well-behaved.

At that time she also had a pet deer, Timothy, that she had rescued from the “Ranch,” a 1200+ acre parcel west of Healdsburg that they had bought in the 1920’s. Timothy, the dogs, cats, rabbit and I were packed up every summer into her giant station wagon and off we went for the summer. We left the first day of my summer vacation and didn’t return until the day before I started school in the fall. Phone service didn’t reach us until the late 1950’s. It was a 4-party line and I remember by mother screaming into the phone for the neighbors to stop eavesdropping! My mother, who valued her privacy, was much relieved when the private line was installed a little later.

There were horses at the Ranch and a Jersey cow, Buttercup, that gave milk we sold to the Clover Dairy Co-op. Then Mom found out that in order to give milk, Buttercup had to occasionally have a calf. When she found out these calves came to questionable ends, she had Buttercup spayed, a surgery that the vet was very amused by. Buttercup’s last calf, Blackie, looked like a Black Angus and grew into a full-sized bull. Blackie was allowed to wander around the property. As a very little girl, I would sometimes hop on his back and ride him around as he grazed. One day, however, Mom caught me and decided having a bull was too dangerous. Dad supposedly sent Blackie to live safely in the arms of the Boy Scouts, but Mom knew that was probably fiction.

When I moved out of the house, she retired permanently from public life and moved to the Ranch. There she kept monkeys that my Dad would bring her from his travels in Mexico and South America on his ‘boat,’ a 125-foot beauty he designed and had built in Holland. There were always a pack of dogs, most of whom had been abandoned on the lonely 12-mile road that ran from Healdsburg to the Ranch. She also had a pigeon that Dad had rescued from Clear Lake, a rabbit that had been a gift from one of my boyfriends, and a lot of cats. All lived comfortably and happily inside the house.

She was always very upset by animal cruelty. But it wasn’t until my father’s death in 1978 that she became outspoken, and dedicated the rest of her life to animal welfare. She decided with the great fortune she inherited, in addition to honoring her beloved husband of 58 years, she could increase her donations to organizations that fought for animal rights. Her close friend Rich Avanzino, who was at that time the President of the San Francisco SPCA, became not only a friend but a colleague and experienced advisor, helping her to confidently take on her new role as activist.

Having had monkeys for a many years of her life, she now realized that they were not appropriate pets. She first got involved with an organization trying to educate the public to stop buying monkeys as pets. She also gave large sums of money to the San Francisco Zoo, strictly to help the plight of the animals that lived in small cages with concrete floors. She was especially concerned with primates and the big cats. To accomplish her goals, she formed the Thelma Doelger Charitable Trust, putting in $3 million at the beginning.

She worked tirelessly to try to help the plight of animals. When she died in 1983, she left the residual of her huge estate to the Thelma Doelger Charitable Trust. Thus began a long and contentious journey that eventually led to the establishment of the Thelma Doelger Trust for Animals.