Lynn Balmer was a humble woman.
She once qualified for the Olympics in ice skating but declined to compete. She was the oldest living female veteran in the United States but preferred talking about teaching math more than her years as a coder during World War II. Her records are kept in the Library of Congress but she insisted on doing her own taxes, even as a centenarian.
Yet one accomplishment for which Balmer was celebrated always brought a smile to her face—recognition as Chico State’s oldest living alum. She passed away December 9 at her home in Chico at the age of 110.
Beaulah Evelyn “Lynn” Lemm Balmer was born September 12, 1907 on her grandfather’s summer home near Lake Almanor and was the oldest of nine children. The granddaughter of early Chico settlers, she graduated from Chico High School with straight A’s and earned her credential from Chico State Teacher’s College in 1927 when she was just 19 years old. She taught in Susanville for four years before leaving to earn a BA in mathematics and a secondary teaching credential from University of California, Berkeley. She went on to teach at Albany High School and served as head of its math department.
In 1943, Balmer was driven by a sense of patriotism to join US Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, known as SPARS, in World War II. She secured a top-secret clearance and worked in military intelligence in Seattle, according to the Carmichael Times. Using her keen mathematical abilities, she read and interpreted weather maps and charts and used Morse code to help ships navigate through dangerous waters and adverse weather conditions between the United States and England. In later years, she delighted in recalling the time she was sent to Portland with a secret message and a gun in her luggage, “just in case.”
Among her other favorite stories were wearing bags of a foul-smelling antimicrobial spice around her neck to school during the 1918 influenza pandemic and how her father’s beehive provided honey to the family during grain and sugar shortages in the Great Depression. She also remembered when her mother received the right to vote in 1920, after the women’s suffrage movement. Balmer remained dedicated to exercising her right to vote all her life and encouraged all other women to do the same.
While in Seattle, a friend introduced her to ice skating, and it soon became one of her favorite activities. She earned the US Figure Skating Association’s Bronze Award in ice dancing and qualified for the Olympics, though she did not participate, preferring to enjoy it as a hobby.
In 1945, she left the military to return to teaching and finished her teaching career in Seattle in 1967.
It was in Seattle where Balmer met a man named Charles who was a “nice skater.” They became friends and skated waltzes, tangos, and fox trots together. They never dated, but one day she got a thin letter in the mail that read “Dammit, I love you. Shall we get married?” She replied with four words: “Columbus took a chance.”
Married 55 years until his death in 2001, they moved to Chico in 1992. She spent her retirement writing and publishing books on their families’ histories.
With bright blue eyes and an animated spirit, Balmer loved to share stories of her years at Chico State, said Farshad Azad, a lecturer and member of the University Advisory Board. He first met her while teaching tai chi at a retirement center and asked her about being an alumna.
“She took a lot of pride in her education and leading the way for everybody, for men and women but mostly young girls,” he said. “She felt like her time at Chico State gave her knowledge and confidence. She was really proud that she opened up the door for the rest of her family and sisters to become Chico State students and alums.”
Balmer especially enjoyed reminiscing about the fun she had in life and how she overcame various obstacles, Azad recalled.
“She would drive her dad’s Model T through rocky roads and rough terrain in the hills as a young woman to get to Chico State to study,” Azad said. “And if she encountered car trouble, she would pull to the side, fix it up, and get back in, which for a woman was entirely unheard of at the time.”
At the 2015 spring convocation, Balmer was honored with two of her sisters, blushing when the crowd gave them a standing ovation. She shared some of her favorite memories, including a music instructor who would walk into class every day shouting “Music is life to live!” and the math instructor who taught her how to love the subject so much she made a career out of it.
She told The Orion she was used to change, having witnessed so much during her lifetime, and approaches everything with an easygoing attitude.
“Things gradually change over time, and I’m used to things coming and going,” she told the student newspaper. “I hardly get upset over anything new. I just always worked with what happened.”
Always impressed by Balmer’s warmth, intellect, and attitude, Azad said he once asked her to share the secrets to her longevity. She told him it was important to stay healthy in both mind and body but, above all else, to enjoy life and not take oneself too seriously.
“We made sure she understood that everybody appreciated her, not only her longevity but her presence and her leadership in quite a humble way,” he said. “We definitely have lost a gem.”