"Isn't it wonderful that they all came here and I'm not dead yet," said Nellie Brown at her 90th birthday celebration in Alexandria yesterday.
"I was lying in bed one night and I thought, 'Why, I should do something big for my birthday. I'll have a party, and I'll give out tickets to my funeral,' " she joked. "If people don't care enough to see me when I'm alive, I don't want them to come and see me when I'm dead."
"And you notice," said one of Brown's nieces, "we're all here."
More than 200 friends, neighbors, relatives and former students came to the Del Ray Methodist Church to honor "the unsinkable Nellie Brown"--celebrity swimmer, church leader, friend and teacher in the Alexandria public schools for 35 years.
"This is a strange birthday party, don't you think? Everybody comes in and sits down," Brown quipped to those gathered. Dressed in a simple white dress and jacket and wearing a corsage of orchids, Brown presided over her kingdom from a chair near the pulpit like a queen from a throne.
Young and old, coming with canes and walkers as well as in strollers, they sat enthralled as they listened to and laughed along with a two-hour presentation of "This Is Your Life, Nellie Brown," a series of songs, recollections and testimonials lifted from Brown's past.
Brown, who holds the national record in the 500-yard and 400-meter freestyle for the over-80 age group, still slips on her red-and-orange flowered swimsuit twice a week to swim a half-mile or so at the Alexandria YMCA. "An institution," is what Ken Parkington, executive director of the Y calls her.
Her swimming talents have taken her all over the country with the D.C. Masters traveling team. She once appeared on Good Morning America with David Hartman. Saturday she received a telegram from Hartman wishing her a happy 90th.
Over and over yesterday, friends called the longtime Alexandria resident "an inspiration," "a legend" and "a symbol for us all."
"While other people her age retire to the rocking chair or the wheelchair, Nellie is still going strong," said a man from her prayer group at Del Ray. The group made a $90 contribution to the church's elevator fund in her name.
Many called her a survivor. They marveled at how she endured polio as an infant, the early deaths of two of her three children, the loss of her husband to a hit-and-run drunk driver and, later in life, the pains of numerous broken bones.
And they repeatedly applauded her strength in overcoming all those misfortunes to go on to become a world traveler, a pillar of the community, an award-winning swimmer and a teacher of swimming for the elderly.
"Nellie reminds me of the early Methodists who used to greet each other with the phrase 'How is thy spirit?' " a longtime friend said. "We all know that it is her spirit that's kept her. It has been an inspiration to us all."
"We grew up in the Depression," said a gray-haired Tommie Burke, one of the "boys and girls" present yesterday from Brown's 35 years of teaching first grade at Mt. Vernon Elementary School and seven years of teaching at a private school. "We didn't have much radio, just one crystal, and no TV. But we had Nellie Brown as a teacher and she kept us busy."
A man in a white tuxedo sprinted into the church and delivered a singing telegram that included a rendition of "Hello Nellie," a customized version of "Hello Dolly," and a traditional chorus of "Happy Birthday," in which everyone joined in.