At 100, D.C. voter still going strong

By Courtland Milloy
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 7:54 PM

Alma M. Coleman, who is 100 years old, got up early Tuesday, washed up, dressed up, fixed breakfast and then headed off to vote in the D.C. general election. No time to waste. She had the hang of this thing called life and wanted to savor every senior moment.

Take the art of getting out of bed. I wanted to know how she could arise on a dark, chilly November morning without her bones creaking the way mine did.

"Turn your body to the side and ease over to the edge of the bed," she told me. "Put your legs out and your feet down and just get up."

That's sort of the way I do it, and my back still hurt.

"When I was your age my back hurt, too," Coleman said. "But at my age, I've outlived all of my aches and pains."

In about 40 years, she figured, I should be feeling fine, too.

Of course it helps that Coleman taught exercise classes for 20 years - and still attends exercise class twice a week.

"I just thank God for the time I have," said Coleman, who lives in the Campbell Heights Senior Citizens Apartments at 15th and U streets NW.

Born in Florence, S.C., in 1910, the great-granddaughter of slaves, Coleman moved to the District in 1935 and spent most of her adult working life cooking and doing laundry at the old Statler Hotel downtown. She raised four children - her husband died when they were adolescents - and so far has outlived all but one, Ella McCall-Haygan, a social worker in the District who watches over her.

Remarkably, for all her triumphs and tragedies, the centenarian stays on an even keel. She does not despair. She is neither angry nor resentful. Has no beef with the tea party. No disappointments with President Obama. The emotional baggage that weighs so heavily on the national psyche, she is free of it all.

Let an economic downturn steal her joy?

"I came out of the country, grew up in the woods," Coleman said. "Everyday was like a Great Depression. But we managed to survive."

She never had a credit card or a bank account. No car. No food stamps. No welfare. "We were raised to be independent," Coleman said.

Fear? Not even afraid of dying. "If you have faith, there is no room for fear," she said. "Just do what good you can and be prepared. When the time comes, it comes."

Coleman attends the Isle of Patmos Baptist Church in Northeast Washington and participates in a weekly Bible study group and prayer circle at her apartment complex. She enjoys assembling puzzles and listening to country music. Occasionally, she watches the news on television.

Just for laughs, I asked whether she had heard about Proposition 19 in California to legalize marijuana. Know anything about marijuana?

"I know it makes you dumb and crazy," she said.

In all her hundred years, Coleman told me, she's smoked one cigarette (tobacco) and got drunk once.

"I was 10, hanging out with my friends, and one drink and drag of that cigarette made me want to hitch the mule and buggy and ride into town," she said. "Now I couldn't hitch the mule sober, let alone drunk. So I was done with that."

A van provided by presumptive Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray took Coleman and some of her neighbors to the polling precinct at Garnett Patterson Middle School a few blocks away.

"For me, it doesn't matter who wins," Coleman said. "Once they get in office, they're going to do whatever they want to do anyway."

So why even bother to vote?

"Because that's what you're supposed to do," she said.

As Coleman saw it, too many had died fighting for a right that she had been denied for too long - for being black, a woman, a resident of the disenfranchised District. There was no way she would ever take the vote for granted, even if politics did get mean and silly at times.

Inside the voting booth, she found instructions directing her to darken a tiny oval to mark the candidate of her choice. She squinted and went to work. Then paused at the first name on the list for delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives: Queen Noble of the H.E.R.O.S.H.E.R.D. Party. For mayor, the choices included Faith of the Statehood Green Party.

"I think I'm just going to sign my name," she said.

Not a bad choice.

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