She was born Irma Lee in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. Soon afterward, she and her parents moved to New Orleans. As a teenager she sang in her church choir and attended McDonogh 41. Many would think that as a Grammy award winning performer Irma Thomas has never had a difficult day in her life. This is far from the truth, and she shares her personal experiences not only with the women of Delgado Community College, but with the community. She was a mother at age 14 and had four children by age 19.
Ms. Thomas received her GED while working at Montgomery Ward as a sales clerk, raising her four children and performing on weekends. At age 61, Ms. Thomas earned an associate degree in Business Studies from Delgado Community College. Her experiences reflect the experiences of many of our students — raising a family, working and trying to obtain an education. Irma is a role model and symbol of how persistence and hard work can allow people to achieve their goals. For 15 years, she balanced work, her family and school to obtain her degree.
Irma celebrated over 50 years in the music business. She began her singing career in the early 1960s and she gets better every year. As an accomplished performer, she sings gospel, blues and pop music and has earned the title “The Soul Queen of New Orleans.” Internationally known, she is the recipient of numerous awards, which include several Grammy nominations, a 2007 Grammy for After the Rain, Best Contemporary Blues Album, the W.C. Handy Award, an Offbeat Magazine Award, a Big Easy Award, a Family Services Award and a Mo Jo Magazine Legends Award. Ms. Thomas was recently inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
The Irma Thomas Center for W.I.S.E. (Women in Search of Excellence) Women opened in 2006, and Ms. Thomas volunteers on a regular basis in the center she helped to found. As a spokesperson for the W.I.S.E. Women program, she gives motivational speeches and promotes the importance of an education in the community. As a graduate of Delgado Community College and a citizen of New Orleans, she shares her personal trials and tribulations as a student, a teenage mother and a business woman. The one most important thing she provides is the opportunity for women to see that no matter what their circumstances, they can be successful in college and that it may take a number of years to achieve their goals.
At Delgado, Irma reaches hundreds of students, but her community work reaches thousands. She lost two homes and a business to Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flood. Her story is our story and she shares that common bond with the citizens of New Orleans. Her encouragement and music inspire all of us to continue to rebuild our homes and the city as well as our lives. She has been the direct reason for many women to enroll in college and become successful. A tireless promoter for the City of New Orleans, she brings attention to the plight of our musicians and citizens since the storm. Through her music, people are reinvigorated to continue the daily struggle to survive and rebuild our city. Her work in this area cannot be measured. As a local musician, who is one of us, she spends hours talking to her fans in addition to performing her inspirational music. Irma Thomas is a much loved icon in the city.