This article originally appeared in The Inquirer on May 14, 2010.
It’s hard to miss the two-tone 1979 Cadillac Coupe de Ville as it rolls down the streets of Coatesville. But it’s not just the long red-and-white car that commands attention. It’s the driver behind the wheel.
Gladys Flamer is 103 years old — 104 next month — and as active today as she was at 90, when she worked as a department-store clerk. She runs errands for her younger neighbors and bakes pies to sell at holiday time. She serves as treasurer of a local club, as she has for decades, just retired as a judge of elections, and doesn’t miss a church or city council meeting.
”Everybody knows the lady who drives this car,” said Flamer, slowly rolling to a stop sign in downtown Coatesville. “It’s just like me. It’s wearing out, but it’s still going."
“Her longevity has made her an icon. Her activism has made her a legend. Ms. Flamer is Coatesville . . . She has the vigor to continue to try to make the city a better place,” said Councilman Marty Eggleston, who has relied on Flamer’s advice during his eight years in politics, including, “Be honest and direct, because people aren’t stupid.”
William Lambert Sr., head of the local NAACP, remembers admiring his neighbor’s go-getter attitude back in the 1940s, as he prepared to go to war as a young soldier. He returned to Coatesville in 1947 to find her just as busy. Just last year, Flamer suggested the same doctors at Moore Eye Institute who keep her eyes sharp enough to drive, start a free clinic in Coatesville for residents recovering from the spate of arsons.
“They did just that. She helps people,” said Lambert, reflecting on days when Flamer and other African-Americans worked together to get government to pay attention to their problems. “She was always outspoken and well coordinated.“
Flamer likes to talk politics. She’s been following it for years — she met Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House. She described the first lady as, “very very nice. She didn’t have no beauty, but she was intelligent.”
Flamer keeps current, with framed photos of America’s first family in her living room. She easily segues from a discussion of the Senate race — “Arlen Specter, he’s experienced regardless of which party he stands for” — to a debate on political doublespeak — “Teeth and tongue don’t always agree.”
Sometimes, her language shows her age. There’s a lot of “nonsense” nowadays, as she sees it. As in “That Congress is a mess now. Did you ever hear of such nonsense?” and “These young kids, they want to dress crazy with this pants way down and all that nonsense.” But then she’ll joke about how someone “tried to psych me out.”
Flamer was born on a farm outside Coatesville in 1906. She was one of 13 children and she remembers the days before refrigeration, when her family buried jars of preserves underground. She’s the only one of her siblings still alive. ”Lucky 13. Or unlucky 13,” she laughed.
She moved to the city soon after getting married at age 20. She worked as a registered nurse and as a beautician, running a salon from the home where she still lives. After her husband died in 1970, Flamer found her house too lonely and quiet, so she went to work at the local Strawbridge & Clothier. She stayed for years — “I worked the floor,” she said — and shoppers would come looking for the octogenarian sales clerk. She only left the job when she was 90 as the company prepared to bring in a new computer system that she didn’t want to learn.
Now, she earns money selling her homemade pies - lemon meringue is her specialty. Last December, she said, sales were down and she only sold about a dozen. She keeps busy with her church, Hutchinson UAME. When it comes to selling ads in church bulletins, she can’t be beat, she said.
”At my age, no one can beat me at raising money,” Flamer said. “When I go in, they see me coming and they think anyone my age should be six feet under.”
Hutchinson’s Rev. Jeffrey Miller said Flamer is a church wunderkind, serving on multiple committees, working as an usher and acting as the unofficial church historian. Miller came to the church four years ago and knew getting Flamer’s approval was key. That came a few weeks into his tenure.
”She came to me and said, ‘You’re going to preach my funeral,’ and I said, ‘I won’t be around. That’s another 100 years from now.' We laughed about it,” Miller said. “Lord bless us she’ll be here another 100 years to help others who come along.”
Flamer has seen the city grow and change and not always in good ways. She knows the young drug dealers in her neighborhood. They say hello and leave her alone. ”Everything that happens in Philly, it happens in Coatesville, too, all that doping,” she said. “Killing somebody is just like getting up and eating your breakfast.”
Still, she won’t leave. Coatesville is home, even if she doesn’t have much family nearby. She has no children and her extended family is largely scattered. Only one cousin lives nearby. ”She’s young,” Flamer said. “She’s only 70.”
So what’s her secret to a long life?
She doesn’t talk about eating right or exercise. She credits her longevity to church-going. She never misses a Sunday, arriving at 7:30 a.m. for the 9 a.m. service. ”Sometimes I worked ‘til 12 at night and I still went to church in the morning,” Flamer said. “As good as you can be, you’re probably not as good as you should be.”