Thelma Duffey, a respected and beloved member of the counseling profession, died Dec. 30, 2022, in San Antonio. She was 68.
Duffey was well-known for her enthusiasm, leadership and passion for helping others. “If you ever wanted to meet a person who blossomed like the most beautiful flower in the garden, who radiated sunshine wherever she went, who shared great wisdom and lived all the multicultural aspects of life that we cherish, that was the great counseling professional and very dear friend, Dr. Thelma Duffey,” says Thelma T. Daley, a past president of the American Counseling Association and an ACA Fellow. “Dr. Duffey loved life, loved the counseling profession and modeled genuineness every moment. Her many contributions to the profession will long be a pathway for counselors to explore and grow. I am blessed because she touched my life.”
After receiving a bachelor’s in Spanish from Trinity University, Duffey attended St. Mary’s University, where she received a master’s degree in both education and mental health counseling and a doctorate degree in counseling. She then began her career as a Title 1 migrant teacher for a school district in San Antonio, but she later transitioned to an academic career when she joined the faculty at Texas State University in San Marcos. She eventually moved to the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), where she served as the chair of the counseling department from 2009 until her death.
Duffey also served as the 64th president of ACA (2015-2016). Richard Yep, the former chief executive officer of ACA, worked closely with Duffey during her presidency and appreciated her ability to lift up and support those around her. “Working with Thelma Duffey was an experience for which I feel incredibly blessed. I literally followed her all over the country and to various parts of the world. What I observed was one of the most caring, supportive and hardworking presidents in our history. But, more than that, Thelma offered her friendship and advice to countless graduate students, practicing counselors, counselor educators and, yes, even association staff,” he says. “When she came into the presidency, Thelma wanted us to make sure we recognized the good work of professional counselors who she knew often went without any recognition. Our theme for the entire year focused on the words ‘know your impact’ — a message that was simple yet powerful.”
“I was honored to serve as CEO the year she was president,” Yep adds, “but even more importantly, in subsequent years, I valued her advice, support and friendship.”
Duffey was an inspirational leader, mentor and friend to many students and colleagues in the profession. “She had a unique, humble and positive way of connecting to everyone she met, as if she had known them for years. Her enthusiasm and excitement glowed as she entered a room with a powerful presence of strength, leadership and care,” recalls Judy Daniels, a founding member and past president of Counselors for Social Justice. “As a gifted leader, mentor and influencer, her impact on individual and systemic levels was profound. She was a truth teller, and I personally loved how she was not afraid to honestly and directly tell you what she thought and yet do it in such a caring and relational way. Words cannot capture how much she will be missed by the profession, her friends and colleagues, the students she has mentored, her clients and most of all her family.”
“With Thelma Duffey’s death, I have lost a wonderful friend and colleague,” says Elias Zambrano, clinical assistant professor at UTSA and past president of the Texas Counseling Association. “As a friend, I will miss the moments of joy, creativity, and mutual warmth that we had for one another. Her contentment with herself allowed us moments of comfort in what was instant laughter over everyday matters and optimism about future possibilities. As a colleague, I valued her deep commitment to and excitement about the counseling profession. Those of us who worked with her and knew her well will experience vacuums of energy that she provided to many aspects of the profession — her leadership, mentorship, teaching and camaraderie. She was simply a wonderful model of what it means to be a friend and a colleague!”
Duffey received many honors and awards throughout her career, including the ACA Presidential Award and ACA Lifetime Membership Award. She was inducted as an ACA Fellow in 2010, and the Association for Creativity in Counseling established the Thelma Duffey Vision and Innovation Award in 2008. She also inspired other professionals and served as a mentor, chairing more than 35 dissertations and authoring numerous academic articles and books.
Marcheta P. Evans, president of Bloomfield College and past president of ACA, had the privilege of not only working with Duffey at the UTSA but also being her friend for more than two decades. “Since we first met at an Association for Counselor Education and Supervision conference sitting on the floor in Park City, Utah, our lives have been inseparable,” says Evans, an ACA Fellow. “She and I ‘grew up’ together in the counseling profession and became leaders through the mutual support of each other. Her record speaks for itself of her many accomplishments, but I personally had a front-row seat to watch her passion, her commitment and her tenacity in leading in a way that had impact. A way that demonstrated like no other her will to ensure that all voices were heard in the profession.”
Duffey was inspired by all forms of creativity, especially music, and she was often known to be the first person on the dance floor at the annual ACA conference. She also focused on helping families through grief and loss. She worked to address bullying and harassment throughout her career, and she provided support and services for the victims and families in the Sandy Hook and Sutherland Springs communities.
Duffey’s compassion and dedication to the profession inspired others as well. “Thelma was mi mejor amiga and closest colleague for the past 19 years. She truly believed in counselors and the work we do. The way she championed creativity and licensure portability was such an inspiration to me,” says Heather Trepal, associate dean and professor of counseling at UTSA and a past president of ACA. “You always knew that Thelma had your back, as well as the back of anyone who was experiencing an injustice in the world. She was fiercely loyal, authentic and genuine in her approach to both work and to life. When I look around UTSA, and the counseling profession, I see her fingerprints everywhere. She gave us all so many gifts.”
“With Thelma gone, the world seems less bright — a sunset seen through a smudged window,” adds Shane Haberstroh, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at Northern Arizona University. “And there are spaces Thelma made. Not empty spaces, even now in her absence. In those spaces Thelma lived; she lived fully, reaching out to those around her with tenacity, humility and grace. Brilliantly compassionate, Thelma nurtured relationships with imperfect people and systems, teaching us that despite all of our flaws, we matter, and that growth never stops. During the times I thrashed around in my own isolation, confusion and angst, Thelma offered a wise and caring safe harbor. And she extended this gift freely to others.”
“She taught us about the power of we and how our interdependence and impact on each other can ignite the spark of creativity, bringing us closer together,” he continues. “Thelma shined bright. The kind of bright that warms instead of blinds. The kind of bright that helps us see each other more clearly — to see we matter. In this, Thelma’s light shines in each of us because she mattered the world to us. The spaces Thelma made are filled with the relationships she nurtured, her profound professional impact, her sage insights and the love she shared.”
“There are simply no words to express the depths of my loss of my dearest friend,” Evans says. “The profession of counseling was elevated because of who she was and her drive to bring in the importance of grief, loss, kindness and music. Music. She loved to dance and you would always find her on the dance floor, especially at the AMCD [Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development] party. That was always our highlight of the ACA conference. I will greatly miss my dance partner, but I smile when I know her impact and legacy has been and will be forever far-reaching.”
Duffey is survived by her children Robert M. Duffey (Rachel Goodman) and Madelyn Duffey (Benjamin Blakelock); their father, Michael Duffey; a grandson, Max Duffey; her father, Richard Hinojosa; her brothers, Jon Hinojosa (Rick Fagan) and Richard Hinojosa; a niece Olivia; and her stepfather, Jim Jacobs. She was preceded in death by her mother Mary Vera Jacobs.
A memorial service was held on Feb. 19 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio. Memorial contributions may be made to the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas.