Maurice H. Thatcher, only surviving member of the Isthmian Canal Commission, a former U.S. Representative from Kentucky, and a prolific poet, celebrates his 100th birthday August 15 -the same date as the 56th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal which he helped build.
A slender man with bushy white eyebrows, Thatcher may be getting along in years and may not move about as quickly as he once3 did, but his mind is as sharp as that of a man half his age. Although he has given up his law business in Washington, D.C., he continues to write poetry and is making a collection of his memoirs.
He is a widower and lives alone in a four-room apartment on busy 16th Street in northwest Washington. A maid fixes breakfast and cleans the apartment, but Thatcher makes his own dinner.
Last September he suffered a bad fall which he say "weakened me considerably - but not my mind." He sustained a cut on the back of his head but was able to call a taxi to take him to a doctor.
In an interview in Washington in July, Thatcher said his health was still good, and he rises about 7:30 am, and sometimes works on his memoirs until midnight. This is a continuing project, and once he gets his papers and memorabilia organized, the collection will be placed on display at the Scottish Rite Temple just across the street from where he lives. He has an editorial assistant who helps him index the papers, photographs, and clippings. Already 80 scrapbooks have been sent to the temple.
Among other things he has an impressive collection of walking sticks and 14 pens which were given to him by U.S. Presidents from Coolidge to Johnson after having been used to sign bills which Thatcher sponsored or had some part in promoting.
He has no special plans to celebrate his 100th birthday although the people in the office building where he had his law office for a number of years usually have a cake for him. "Ordinarily I don't pay much attention to birthdays," he says.
Last year the Washington Post newspaper printed a 99th birthday story about Thatcher. And President Nixon sent him a personal letter of congratulations. At that time Thatcher told how he got to be 99.
"I don't eat meat. I eat vegetables, eggs, and milk. I don't drink; I don't smoke; and I don't drink tea or coffee. . . It's not a religious thing," he said. "I just wanted to live what I considered a sound biological life. I noticed that the smokers and chewers and drinkers had a hard time quitting when they wanted to. I just quit early. I'm a good sleeper, always was, and I still get about 8 hours' sleep a night." A few months ago Thatcher appeared on the television show "They Said It Couldn't Be Done" when the subject was on the Panama Canal.
He prefers listening to his short-wave radio than watching TV although he has a large color set. "There are too many commercials on TV. I would rather listen to music while I'm working," he says. He likes to try to get Panama on his radio and often has been successful.
Thatcher came to the Canal with his late wife in 1910, a time when the Canal construction was moving along at a quick pace. There were 4 more years of work ahead, but most of the major construction problems had been solved.
APPOINTED BY TAFT
The question of organizing the Canal Zone Government was being discussed in 1910 and Thatcher was appointed as a member of the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) by President Taft to concentrate on that project. He was named to head the Department of Civil Administration and because of his duties he was given the unofficial title of Governor of the Canal Zone. His offices were in the present District Court building, then called the Administration Building.
In a book compiled and edited in 1911 by F.E. Jackson, entitled "Makers of the Panama Canal," Thatcher was said to be "a man who is splendidly equipped for the exacting position he fills. It is no light task to be Governor of the Canal Zone and to have in hand the civil administration for its widely varied interests. Not only does he have supervision and oversight of the division of police and prisons, fire protection, customs and taxes, roads and streets, water supply and plumbing, postal affairs and schools, but he has supervision also over the street, water and sewer systems of the Panamanian cities of Colon and Panama; and he is the official channel through which must flow all communication with the Republic of Panama for, or on behalf of, the Isthmian Canal Commission or the Canal Zone Government."
Thatcher, whose memory is prodigious, said that when he arrived in the Canal Zone he felt like many other men working on the Canal in that he was part and parcel of the greatest enterprise of all ages.
"I have always had great faith in the future of the Canal and in the future of aviation," he said. He recalled that back in 1912 there was a man named Fowler who made several unsuccessful attempts to cross the Isthmus by plane.
"I knew that he would try again when the wind died down, so I looked out the window and sure enough, I saw the plane take off toward the Atlantic side." Fifty-eight minutes later Thatcher got a call from the Cristobal police who reported, "Governor, Fowler just landed."
That short flight across the Isthmus got Thatcher thinking about aviation and its possibilities. While in Congress some years later he worked hard convincing businessmen and Government leaders that it was feasible to carry mail by air over long distances.
He recalls that on two occasions he flew over Washington, D.C. with Charles Lindbergh. The flyer had just completed his famous solo flight to Paris. When he went to Washington, Lindbergh offered rides to senators and congressmen and their wives. The first day he took up Mr. and Mrs. Thatcher. Two days later Thatcher went up with a lady from Panama named Mrs. Lola Conger who begged him to get her a ride with Lindbergh. Thatcher persuaded Lindbergh to do it so he made his second flight in the same week to accompany Mrs. Conger. This, however, was not his first experience in the air. His first was a ride in a balloon at what was then Camp Knox, now Fort Knox, Ky.
The late Mrs. Anne Bell Thatcher, who accompanied her husband to the Isthmus as a bride, was more concerned with the social amenities of life in the Canal Zone. In an interview during the Roosevelt Centennial in 1958, she remembered a reception being nearly ruined by spoiled chicken salad and a dinner party during which the ladies got thoroughly drenched by a heavy rain. The only thing that she said she did not quite like about Panama was the difficulty they had on account of dampness. She had a house in the construction town of Culebra which she decorated in the style of the day and displayed her famous orchid collection on the porch. Mrs. Thatcher died in Washington on October 10, 1960.
Thatcher was the youngest member of the Isthmian Canal Commission and has long outlived all the others. He looked back over his 100 years and admitted that he had an interesting life. He was born in Chicago, Ill, on August 15, 1870, the son of John C., and Mary T. Thatcher, but was reared in Butler County, Ky., and educated in public and private schools.
Most people in the Canal Zone have heard of Thatcher but few are wholly aware that his career in the Canal Zone was only a small part of a career which included law practices in Kentucky, 10 years as a member of Congress, followed by another law practice in Washington.
LICENSED IN 1898
He took up the study of law while he was clerk of the Circuit Court of Butler County and was licensed to practice in 1898. he began his law practice in Louisville, and was named assistant U.S. district attorney for western Kentucky in 1901. He served in that capacity until 1906 when he returned to Louisville. From 1908 to 1910, when he was appointed to the Canal Commission, he was state inspector and examiner for Kentucky.
During the time that he was serving in Congress, he returned to the Isthmus three times as a guest of the Canal Zone Government. He took the welfare of Panama Canal employees much to heart, and during the time he was in Congress, prepared a number of measures that benefited Canal workers.
Since World War II he has made several more visits to the Canal Zone, each time as a guest of the Canal organization. One of these was in 1962 when he came for the dedication of the bridge that bears his name. he cut the ribbon that opened the bridge. His last visit was in 1964 at the 50th anniversary celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal.
Thatcher's name still is very big in Panama. He is a household work in the town of Arraijan where he was given a parcel of land as a token of gratitude for creating the Thatcher Highway. He later gave the land back to the town for a children's park. Every year a school child in Arraijan gets a Thatcher medal for proficiency in English.
He introduced legislation that created the Thatcher Ferry which operated toll free for more than 30 years and was followed by the Thatcher Ferry Bridge which spans the Canal at Balboa. The highway from the bridge to Arraijan is named Thatcher Highway. He also was the author of legislation for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of Gorgas Memorial Laboratory in Panama for research in tropical diseases which has grown to be the outstanding institution of its type in the world.
He has long served as vice president and general consul of the Gorgas Memorial Institute of Tropical and Preventive Medicine which supervises the work of the Gorgas Memorial Laboratory. Recently he was made an honorary president of the institute. In fairly recent years, Thatcher encouraged action by Congress which provided retirement pay for non-US-citizen employees of the Canal organization. For his work he was given a certificate making him an honorary president of the Canal Zone Retired Workers Association, an Isthmian organization of non-U.S.-citizen employees.
He has been honored by the Government of Panama which gave him the medal and plaque of the Order of Vasco Nunez de Balboa. Venezuela and Ecuador also have honored him for his services to tropical America. President Kennedy gave him, as a personal memento, the pen with which he signed the bill naming the bridge over the Canal in his honor.
Last year, on his 99th birthday, Thatcher told newsmen that he was thinking of quitting his law practice and going into poetry. At the time he was not too active in law, but busy collecting his files, press clippings, and writing poetry.
He said he had written about 1,000 quatrains in FitzGerald ---Omar Khayyam style and a large number of sonnets in the Italian and Shakespearean styles. None of his friends doubts he has been a prolific writer of poetry since few letters -and he wrote many- ever arrived from him that did not contain a poem.