"I never was normal, anyway," said Thelma Hayward, 103, a resident of Tall Pines in Belfast. The Maine native was talking about the extraordinary experiences of her life, some of which led to her being recognized April 12 by the Maine Health Care Association (MHCA) at a ceremony in Augusta. Unfortunately, Hayward was not well enough to attend the event, so Tall Pines held a party in her honor April 17, where she received a plaque for lifetime achievement from MHCA.

Among Hayward's experiences one in particular stands out: in her 20s, she was a high school French teacher and went to France to study at the prestigious Sorbonne academy. While she was there, the forces fighting Franco in the Spanish Civil War were crushed, and refugees began to stream into southern France. Because of her excellent French, Hayward said, she was employed from 1939 to 1940 as the director of a Quaker-sponsored colony for war refugees, primarily children, many of whom had been orphaned.

Hayward said her fluent French (she also spoke fluent Spanish, as well as some Italian), along with her American citizenship, enabled her to get the necessary documents for her young charges. "Because I spoke French perfectly, they would do what I wanted," she said.

With the coming of World War II and the invasion of France by the Nazis in 1940, Hayward had to return to the United States. She wrote a book about her year with the Spanish children, titled "Phosphorus on the Waves." The title, she said, refers to the way phosphorus appears on the surface of the ocean, then breaks up, then coalesces again, which she likened to the way in which the children in her care were put back together after their ordeal during the Spanish Civil War.

Written in the 1940s, the book didn't find its way into publication until 2009, when Hayward was 99 years old.

Her return to the United States from France was also fraught with danger. She sailed on the S.S. Washington, a passenger liner carrying around 1,700 refugees from Europe. En route, it was stopped by a German U-Boat and the captain was ordered to abandon ship, as the Germans intended to sink it. "We had to get into the lifeboats," Hayward said, adding that she thought there were some German sympathizers among the Washington's crew.

Fortunately, the ship was not torpedoed, and eventually made its way safely back to the U.S.

After her return home, Hayward taught in schools in several states, including Maine, California, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey.

At one time, she owned a large house on Bayside Road in Northport. She told how once she had to go from there to Wells to collect her belongings so she could spend the winter in Northport. She had "a beautiful yellow sports car," which she drove, but, encountering some ice in a lonely spot on the road, lost control of the car and ended up in a ditch. At first, "I didn't know what I was going to do," with no houses nearby, she said, but luckily a young man happened by and offered to help. "He was one of the hippies," she said, "and I was scared of hippies." However, her rescuer proved himself a gentleman, even giving her a ride to Wells. Eventually, her car was towed from the ditch, but couldn't be salvaged, she said.

The MHCA's Remember ME program features an exhibit of photographs, along with brief biographies of pioneering, innovative and interesting residents of Maine's long-term-care facilities. Each honoree receives a certificate of lifetime achievement.