Edna “Eddy” Thorson pioneered the use of amateur radios by people with disabilities — just one of her many accomplishments despite having muscular dystrophy.
Thorson, who died April 13 at age 75, was known as a role model, including as the first “Handiham” at the Courage Center in Minneapolis. Handiham is now a worldwide program that enables those with disabilities to learn amateur radio and technology skills.
Reared in Grand Meadow in southeastern Minnesota, Thorson was nationally recognized as one of America’s outstanding young women for her volunteer work with the American Red Cross and other causes.
She also earned the top license for ham operators. Thorson could easily tap out 30 words a minute in Morse code, distributing health and welfare messages globally in record time.
Thorson always thought of what she could do — not what she couldn’t, said longtime friends, twins Janet and Janice Robidoux of Coon Rapids. Ham operators, they met her on the airwaves 40 years ago.
“That’s what we always admired about her, her intellect and her courage to go on,” said Janice Robidoux. “She was a delightful person. She really had a brain and was quite intelligent. We never thought of her as handicapped. That didn’t define her.”
Thorson had stopped going to public school in sixth grade, when the disease left her in a wheelchair. Until her 40s, she spent much of her time in her bedroom, running a local phone answering service and making dolls.
But she longed for the lights of the big city. Rochester nuns, whom she knew through ham radio, helped her make her break.
“Eddy ‘ran away from home’ in 1985 or so,” said Janet Robidoux. “She went to Robbinsdale to live with Sister Alverna O’Laughlin of Rochester Sisters of St. Francis.”
Thorson’s parents brought her first power wheelchair, which she named “Josie.” Mobile, Thorson felt she’d arrived.
“One day, about 24 years ago, she took her chair down West Broadway Avenue and learned that a new apartment for the handicapped — the Cunningham — was going to open,” Janet Robidoux said. “She readily signed up as a charter member and became independent for the first time in her life. I cannot say how much living at the Cunningham meant to her.”
Her circle of friends grew.
“She was a role model for others in the handicapped apartment complex ... showing that you could have a good life,” Janice Robidoux said.
Then she took up intricate beadwork, her finest work.
Last July, Thorson had a choking spell and her esophagus was damaged. Then she had a heart attack. In August, physicians gave her two weeks to six months to live.
Thorson went home, bequeathing her beads to the Upper Midwest Bead Society and dispersing other belongings. Still, she fought to live.
“She was ready to go but she said, ‘I’m going to drink the cup of life until it’s gone,’ ” Janice Robidoux said.
On oxygen and bed-bound, Thorson hung on for eight months. The well-read woman braved nights alone after assistants went home.
“She said, ‘I’ve lived so much of my life in my mind, using my imagination, thinking up my own stories if I can’t watch television.’ And even in the end, that’s what she did,” Janice Robidoux said. “She had a wonderful mind.”
Thorson didn’t want services. In her memory, friends plan to plant a magnolia tree at the Cunningham.
Thorson was preceded in death by parents Knute and Marie and brother Louis. Survivors include a brother, Jim, nieces, nephews and friends.