Helen Thomas is finding it hard to get her driver’s license renewed because she never received a birth certificate. - Doug Thomas

'It's like I've never been born'

When Helen Mary Thomas looks in a mirror, she sees a friendly, elderly lady with telltale wrinkles reflecting her 94 years.

Yet the longtime Gold Hill resident doesn't need a reflection to know she exists: She is a homeowner, voter, has grown children, grandchildren, Medicare, a Social Security card and has been paying taxes since before World War II.

"But now, all of a sudden, it's like I've never been born," she said.

The problem is that when she went to the Oregon Driver and Motor Vehicles Services Division (formerly Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles) office in Medford to renew her driver's license, which expired May 29, she was told she had to show proof of U.S. citizenship with a copy of her birth certificate.

However, she was never issued a birth certificate. There was no doctor in attendance when she was born May 29, 1919, in her parents' rural home in Washington County, Tenn.

The local DMV office, after issuing her a temporary license that expires Aug. 29, instructed her to send a letter with the necessary paperwork to the Social Security Administration to obtain a "numident," which stands for "numerical identification." It is basically the agency's computerized database file.

She sent the material in early June but has yet to receive the numident, according to her son Doug Thomas, 68, who lives near Boise.

"This is creating a nightmare for elderly people," her son told the Mail Tribune. "The DMV staff has been very courteous, but their hands are tied by procedures.

"It seems to me if someone can walk in with enough information establishing who they are, like my mother can, then common sense and good judgment should prevail," he added.

Widowed in 1996 after the death of Hoyt "Curly" Thomas, her husband of 46 years, she depends on her ability to drive to survive, she said, noting none of her grown children live in the area.

"I'm on my own — this is a necessity, not a pleasure," she said. "I have to pick up medicine at a drug store. I drive a lot less now but I'm still a good driver."

Proof of citizenship for a driver's license renewal is the result of Oregon Senate Bill 1080, which became law in July of 2008, said David House, spokesman for the DMV's state office.

With driver's licenses being issued on eight-year rotations, many people are having to show proof of their legal presence for the first time, he explained.

"This is not a unique situation," he said of Oregonians having to prove citizenship. "People now have to prove they are here legally. Most of them have never had to dig out a birth certificate or a passport to establish that. For the first time, they are having to show their legal presence."

The law was enacted as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. and followed the Federal Real ID Act passed by Congress in 2005. The state law was aimed at stopping would-be terrorists from using illegally obtained driver's licenses to access airports and government buildings.

Noting it was a bit unusual for a natural-born U.S. citizen not to have a birth certificate, House said the DMV will work with applicants who find themselves falling through the cracks through no fault of their own. Helen Thomas appears to fit into that category, he noted.

"I'm sure I'm not the only one falling through the cracks," she said. "I was born and raised in America. But I never got a birth certificate. It's like I'm not here."

When it comes to driving, she said she has received only one ticket in 77 years.

"And that was for speeding to my mother-in-law's place a long time ago," she said.

She received an Oregon driver's license in 1973 when she moved to the state.

"When I was young in Tennessee, you didn't have to have a license," she said. "I started driving when I was 16."

Thomas, who retired from Hewlett-Packard Co. in California, where she worked in the rivet department, said she intends to drive for only about another year.

"The way I feel now, a year is stretching it," she said. "I'm as old as dirt."

Observing that she is sharp with a good sense of humor, Doug Thomas said she jokes a lot but is very concerned about the potential loss of her driver's license.

"She is a lot of fun to be around," he said. "Her grandkids call her all the time. Unfortunately, she had a little trouble getting around. She depends a lot on her car."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or

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