By the time Thelma Holland put down her guitar, she and her husband
had turned down a shot at the Grand Ole Opry, become friends
with Gene Autry and were renowned for their country-western stints at
the Sunset Valley Barn Dance.
Holland, of St. Paul, died Tuesday at the age of 84.
After several years of strumming melodies as a teen at family functions, Holland landed
her first big gig at WSM Radio in Chicago, where she won an award as
a country-western singer. At one point on WSM, Minnie Pearl opened for her.
On the road, she met her husband, Hank Holland of "Al and Hank," and
the two formed the group, "Hank and Thelma," in which her husband played
fiddle to her guitar.
In the 1940s, the two were invited to play the Sunset Valley Barn Dance,
a traveling show. On top of that, Holland played on KSTP at the St. Paul Hotel
every morning at 6 a.m., right after breakfast at Mickey's Diner. She also
played on-air at WDAY in Fargo, N.D.
While in Chicago, she was offered a chance to go on the Grand Ole Opry,
but declined because she was pregnant, her son said.
"She said, 'I'm in a bad business here to start a family in the first place,' " said Richard
Holland. "She always said, 'It's kind of nice to be a big fish in a small pond, rather than
a small fish in a big pond.' "
She met Gene Autry at WDAY, and the two were good friends, her son said.
"She said he was just a really, really sweet guy."
In the 1950s, Holland put down her guitar and let it collect dust, her son said. She went
to work as a clerk for the state of Minnesota at the department of unemployment, where she
stayed for roughly two decades.
Several years ago, Holland won a Radio Pioneer Award from KSTP.
But she couldn't have cared less, her son said.
"She didn't go (to accept the award) ... She used the award as a placemat," Holland
said. "My mom always said that was another person, another time and another place."
Born in Waukesha, Wis., Holland moved with her parents to Cushing, Wis., and graduated
from St. Croix High School in the early 1940s.
She is survived by her son, Richard Holland, and five grandchildren.
Visitation will be at 4 p.m. Friday at Spielman Funeral Home 344 University Ave., St. Paul.
Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Wolf Creek Methodist Church in Wolf Creek, Wis.
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