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CASTANA, Iowa | A coffee pot doubling as a vase held a colorful assortment of flowers near Thelma Miller's casket on Thursday, fitting for a woman who connected friends around a cup of coffee for years.

Miller, 103, died on Saturday. Nearly 190 family members and friends turned out to celebrate her life in a funeral service at Castana Community Church.

I interviewed Miller a few times through the years, as she represented a vanishing breed of Iowa Caucus "pioneers" who hosted a Democratic caucus in her home.

That's largely the way Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses began in 1972; neighbors of like political persuasion gathered in kitchens and living rooms across Iowa, pledging their support for various candidates while sipping coffee and munching on brownies or cake.

Miller didn't just open her home on that night the nation turned its political attention to the Hawkeye state. She opened her kitchen and dining room every day for more than 21 years, making certain folks in Castana had a place to convene for conversation, cookies and a cup of joe.

I sat in on Miller's coffee klatch one March morning three years ago. Our session, which came to about 10 of us, occurred three weeks after Miller's 100th birthday open house.

"My husband (Marvin) and I stood outside the church for an hour and a half before we got into the church to greet Thelma at her 100th birthday open house," Beverly Struble, of nearby Onawa, Iowa, told me on Thursday.

By all accounts, the line of guests snaked through Castana for three blocks that day.

"Thelma personally greeted every guest," Struble said. The number of open house attendees that day came to 400, nearly tripling the size of the only community Thelma Miller ever called home.

"Her children were trying to move Thelma along, but she wanted to visit with every person who came through," said Kathy Hanson, who served as a vocalist at Thursday's funeral.

"Thelma was popular in the modern sense and in the sense that matters most," said the Rev. Linda Boggs. "She was loved and adored by all who met her. She had a graciousness and joy about her that came from a deep and quiet faith."

When a church group stopped by Miller's home on a caroling activity, Miller invited them inside to warm themselves. She then sent them away with buckets of fresh caramel popcorn.

"She told me she was lucky to have so many friends," Boggs continued before a pause. "We were the lucky ones."

Melba Struble spoke of her "Aunt Thelma" and the ways in which she "fed us, raised us, listened to us, cheered us on and cried and prayed for us."

In the end, Melba Struble said, Thelma "loved us unconditionally."

She loved her neighbors and community that way, too. There's no other way to explain how a woman, beyond age 100, continued to throw open her kitchen door every morning, a welcoming invitation for anyone who simply enjoyed the warmth of friendship.

And, of course, the warmth that comes with a fresh pot of coffee.

Leaving Thelma's funeral, I was pleased to hear her daily coffee klatch tradition continues in Castana. It is now hosted by Thelma's friends Kathy Hanson, Nancy Hanson, Dorothy Reed and Phyllis Dovrovolny.

"On Fridays, we rotate," Kathy Hanson said. "Anyone is welcome."

Thelma Miller wouldn't have it any other way.



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