A smiling Lou Etta Watkins opened the screen door of her downtown Leesburg home and began to bemoan how everything had gone wrong that morning: The old, rain-soaked roof was causing problems, and so were a host of other things.
"But anyway," said Watkins, 78, flipping her hand dismissively. There was no use getting mad, she said. Besides, she had other topics to turn to, such as the story of her half-century as a Loudoun County civil rights activist and volunteer extraordinaire.
The story begins in Rectortown, a Fauquier County village, and ends -- at least for now -- in the little Leesburg house, where an etched-glass award from the Loudoun branch of the NAACP is the most recent addition to a living room full of figurines, books and family photos.
In the course of her civic activism, Watkins has held several titles in the civil rights organization's local chapter, including president, and has campaigned for mental health services and voter participation. That broad dedication to community service earned her the Marie Medley Award -- named for the chapter's first president -- at the NAACP's Oct. 15 banquet.
Always, she said, she has strived for equanimity, whether confronted with a soggy roof or discrimination.
"I was never angry about it," Watkins, a former housekeeper, said. "To me, being angry about a circumstance is ridiculous, because it's a waste of your time and effort."
Instead, her story is peppered with hilarious anecdotes and raucous laughter. To hear Watkins tell it, her social justice work was almost accidental, motivated as much by curiosity and an independent streak as by ideology.
Take, for example, that time in the 1960s when she and fellow PTA members decided that the Carver School in Purcellville, the all-black school that Watkins's two children attended, needed money to build a cafeteria. Watkins suggested asking local banks, figuring that they had plenty of cash. Her friends snickered, but she was undeterred.
"I wrote this nice, nice letter, put all this stuff in it, stuff I didn't even believe myself!" she said with a long and lively laugh. She received one response, from a banker who explained that the money was not the bank's to give away. But he enclosed a $25 personal check. "Then," Watkins said of her PTA group, "they weren't laughing at me anymore."
The lesson, she said: If you don't fight the battle, you can't win it.
Those who have observed Watkins over the years say her activism has always been motivated by a profound principle.
"She just wants equality for all people, no matter what your age, your race, your religion," said Mary Randolph, a fellow Loudoun NAACP member. "She's just that type of person."
Watkins was not always so determined. One of seven children of a day laborer and a homemaker, she grew up in Rectortown, where racial lines were clear. The white students went to school in nearby Marshall and attended the Methodist church. Watkins and the other black children studied in a three-room schoolhouse and worshiped at the Baptist church.
"We didn't even know that it was segregation," she said. "White people did this, and black people did that."
The school in Rectortown ended after seventh grade, so Watkins and her classmates took a bus to a black high school in Manassas, nearly 30 miles away. There, she wrote an essay titled "Why I Want to Be a Stenographer" to impress her teacher with her ambition. The truth was that she wanted to get married and begin having children, which she did soon after graduation.
Watkins's community service began in the late 1950s, after she and her first husband moved to Purcellville, where she heard about the PTA and the League of Women Voters. She was not quite sure what the clubs were for, but she knew she wanted to be involved. "I always wanted to be part of whatever was going on," she said.
League members talked about poor people in Appalachia. It sounded like code to Watkins.
"I had no idea what they were talking about," she said. "Then I realized: If everyone thought somebody else was going to do it, then who was going to do it?"
That was another lesson, she said: People often do not work for solutions because they do not know about the problems.
Later, Watkins's inquisitiveness led her to attend the county Board of Supervisors' meetings. She had heard people grumbling about the board and wanted to "go and see what kind of people they are, anyway." She became a regular, often speaking out on education issues, one of her priorities over the years.
In 1989, she led the fight to save Leesburg's Douglass School, the county's first black high school. Two years later, she clashed with Loudoun schools over low minority hiring.
"She can be very feisty when she needs to be," said Gladys Burke, a close friend who nominated Watkins for the NAACP award. "But she's also very eloquent and elegant."
Watkins has picked smaller battles, too. In the 1970s, she defended long-haired boys -- "It's not what's on your head, it's what's in it," she said she told school officials. The bottom line, she said, has always been fairness.
"Now it's not just working to get things for us as black people," she said. "It's working to have things done right for everybody."
For 38 years, she has lived in the little Leesburg house with her second husband, Frank Watkins. From there, she walks five blocks to the Safeway, a trek that her more youthful friends -- those in their early seventies -- marvel at, she said. She watches Board of Supervisors meetings on cable television in her low-ceilinged living room, often shaking her head at slow-growth proponents, who she thinks should establish their own state where everything stays the same.
"I like change," she said.
Watkins's service continues. She is an active volunteer with the Loudoun Alliance for the Mentally Ill and chairman of the Loudoun NAACP's political action committee. She is still a member of the League of Women Voters, the Thomas Balch Library's Black History Committee and several other organizations.
"I have plenty of things to do, so there's no reason to get a job," she said, sitting on a plush sofa in her home on a recent afternoon.
A short while later, Watkins finished her story and got up to pack. She had a state NAACP meeting to attend in Richmond the next day.