VIOLA WALKER says she hasn't missed voting in a presidential election since Calvin Coolidge ran in 1924.

It is one of the privileges of the "better life" that she and her late husband came to Philadelphia for 81 years ago. Back when she was growing up in Rocky Mount, N.C., even the U.S. Constitution couldn't guarantee black citizens the right to vote.

When the Constitution finally granted voting rights to women in 1920, she knew that didn't include her. That's why Election Days mean so much to her.

But Viola Walker never dreamed she'd live to see an Election Day like today.

She never imagined that on her 103rd birthday she'd have a choice between a woman and a black man.

"No, no, never," she told me yesterday. "I never imagined I'd see something like this. This is what we prayed for all those years.

"But I never thought I'd live this long. I never thought I'd live to my 80s, even."

She has lived long enough to see people whose descendants fought and died for the right to vote sit home on Election Days.

"It's surprising to me to know that so many people don't vote," she said. "It's your privilege. How can you ever speak up for yourself if you don't even vote?"

She had no trouble speaking up for herself yesterday when I visited her in a retirement apartment complex where she lives at 55th Street and Haverford Avenue. She is as slim as a reed and has the complexion of a woman about half her age.

She eats whatever she wants and maintains her small apartment with minimal help from her son Terrence and a visiting nurse who comes in a few days a week.

Except for a broken hand two months ago and a cut in her scalp suffered 35 years ago when a venetian blind she was dusting fell on her head, she has never spent a day in a hospital.

"She stopped driving when she was 86," her son told me. "I asked her why and she said she was tired of having to drive all these old people around."

Despite her good health, though, she didn't take any chances that she'd be too sick to vote today.

She voted for Barack Obama by absentee ballot. But he was probably the only candidate who could have kept her from voting for Hillary Clinton.

"I came up right in the midst of women voting for the first time," she said. "I was proud of that. I thought God had heard and answered our prayers.

"Of course women have a big voice in politics now. It doesn't matter whether you're a woman or what color you are today.

"Women today can take jobs that men can't even apply for."

She shakes her head in disbelief at the thought of it, her silver curls bobbing with the movement.

I couldn't help myself. I had to ask her what everybody asks people her age.

"I don't have any secrets," she laughed. "People ask me that all the time.

"I just tell them that I hold onto God's unchanging hand."

Her son smiled.

"I know she never smoked or drank, and she kept out of other people's business," he said.

As we talked, she sorted through her mail and the stack of citations from President Bush, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and other dignitaries. A friend brought a citation from Mayor Nutter while I was there.

"Laura and I wish to extend our wishes," the presidential citation said. ". . . You are part of a generation that has contributed great strength and honor to our country."

"She got one of these from President Bush three years ago too," her son said. "She was really happy. But she said she still wouldn't vote for him."

Nothing personal, Mr. President. But when Election Day means as much to you as it does to Viola Walker, you don't trade your vote for a citation. *

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith