OGDEN -- Just back from a 15-day Hawaii cruise, Velma Saunders made a beeline Tuesday afternoon from the lobby of the Colonial Court Apartments in Ogden to a waiting elevator.
Immaculately clad in silver slippers, light-brown slacks and a beige mock turtleneck festooned with faux pearls, Saunders' wispy body arched slightly forward as a pair of visitors struggled to keep up en route to her condominium.
Saunders, a community activist who will celebrate her 100th birthday today with a reception at Weber State University, is in a race against time.
But like a fine wine, her wit has only gotten better with age.
"If you don't use it, you damn sure lose it," Saunders said wryly, explaining her simple philosophy for remaining spry.
Saunders practices what she preaches.
Three days a week, she works as a receptionist at the United Way of Northern Utah, where she is adored by Robert A. Hunter, the nonprofit agency's president and chief executive officer.
"She's the most colorful, humorous and focused person I have ever met," he said. "When she gets something in her mind, she sticks with it."
Saunders she has been blessed with plenty of good friends like Hunter, as well as a strong desire to help others.
"God gave every one of us an ability to do some good," she said. "I chose community service."
Born on Dec. 2, 1909, in Lake Charles, La., Saunders moved to Ogden in 1936 with her husband, Jack, who was a chef for the Union Pacific Railroad.
Only a few other African-American families lived in Ogden at the time, and segregation was in full swing.
African-Americans had to walk along the south side of city streets, were relegated to the balconies of movie theaters and couldn't enter hotels through the front door, Saunders said.
She recalled prejudice hitting home during the 1950s when her son, Noel, was denied enlistment in the Air Force three times because of his race.
However, one day, Saunders sneaked into the Ben Lomond Hotel through a side door and met with Congressman Walter Keil Granger, D-Utah, who interceded with the military and enabled her son to finally enlist.
Saunders' son died in 1994. She also has a daughter, Valetta, who lives in Shawnee Mission, Kan.
Saunders' encounter with Granger may have played a role in persuading her to campaign for the re-election of Sen. Frank Moss, D-Utah, in 1964. As a reward for her work, Moss invited Saunders to attend the inauguration of President Lyndon Johnson.
In addition to national politics, Saunders has remained intensely interested in Ogden affairs.
For six years, Saunders lobbied the city council for the construction of the Marshall White Community Center, which opened in 1968, and insisted that it be named after a black Ogden police officer killed in the line of duty.
City Councilman Jesse Garcia praises Saunders for her efforts in tackling projects affecting Ogden's minority population.
"She's been out front on many issues. She is a real trouper."
Saunders also led a successful campaign to install traffic lights at 27th Street and Wall Avenue and a crosswalk near the New Zion Baptist Church on Lincoln Avenue.
Hunter recalled that when he was an assistant to former Ogden Mayor Bart Wolthuis in the early 1970s, Saunders managed to get the business license of a slaughterhouse revoked after claiming the stench from the plant kept her up at night.
"She came into a city council meeting and said, 'If you don't believe me, Mr. Mayor, just come over and sleep with me one night,'Ã¢Ã¢" Hunter said, recalling that the comment generated raucous laughter from the council.
In addition to being a community activist, Saunders has been a grand marshal for Roy Days, is a recipient of the Freedom Foundation Hero Award and former president of the local Altrusia Club. In 1999, she received an honorary degree from Weber State University.
Saunders worked from 1966 to 2006 as the secretary to 22 Weber County commissioners. Asked how she enjoyed the job, Saunders replied with a chuckle, "It depends which commissioner was in office."
But even now, Saunders' presence is missed by those who attend Weber County Commission meetings, said Shelly Halacy, the commission's administrative assistant.
"People still continue to ask, 'Where is that little lady who sat up front?'Ã¢Ã¢" said Halacy.
Today's reception for Saunders at the Lindquist Alumni Center on the Weber State campus from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. is being sponsored by the "lunch bunch," a group of Saunders' friends who get together once a month for a meal.
Saunders said the fuss the lunch bunch is making over her birthday is heartwarming.
"It brings tears to my eyes."