posted 12/20/2010 in the Pasadena Star News
PASADENA - Lydia Wilkins, who lived through more than a century of hard-fought change in race relations and relished casting her vote for the first black president has died. She was 106.
A devoted - and impeccably stylish - parishioner at All Saints Episcopal Church, Wilkins continued to attend services until two weeks before her death on Dec. 9, All Saints Rector Ed Bacon said Monday.
Wilkins, who would have turned 107 on Jan. 12, will be celebrated at with a memorial and party in her honor at the church on Jan. 16, he said.
"She was nothing short of amazing," Bacon said. "She was a person full of stories and eager to tell them to the world."
When she was born in 1904 women couldn't vote, and it was was difficult or impossible for black men to cast a ballot, Wilkins recalled in an interview with the Star-News before the 2008 presidential election.
"I didn't think I'd live that long - I think it's wonderful," she said of seeing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama run for the presidency.
Until she was about 101, Wilkins drove herself to the polls and her daughter, Marjorie Jones, said that both her parents were always politically active.
Wilkins, a lifelong Episcopalian, also lived to see profound changes in her church, and at All Saints, the Rev. Zelda Kennedy said.
"No one else brings that history, that link, to so many different aspects of Episcopalian history, some of us can't even begin to imagine," Kennedy said. "When she was growing up girls couldn't be acolytes, and women couldn't be priests. She lived long enough to have a priest like me."
Bacon called Wilkins a "pioneer in all of that change."
"She had very little patience with any kind of discrimination, ... and she wanted the church to change more quickly than it did," he said. "She was rather an impatient person, an irreverent person, but a very holy person."
Growing up in East Orange, N.J., Wilkins said she never encountered much overt racism, and she graduated from a racially mixed high school.
"New Jersey didn't have strict segregation," she recalled in 2008. "No one at school was allowed to call names."
But she wasn't always insulated from prejudice.
Wilkins remembered dropping out of Temple University in Philadelphia because of swimming class.
"That's why I didn't finish college," she said. "They encouraged the girls to get out of the pool if I got in. It was terrible ... When they did that, I wouldn't go back, and that's what they wanted."
However, she did meet her husband at Temple, and the couple came to Pasadena in 1933 when he became vicar of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on North Fair Oaks Avenue.
The couple and their two daughters stayed until 1942, when he became a World War II Army chaplain, and they retired to Pasadena after he had headed churches in Texas and North Carolina.
Wilkins always remained interested in politics and church affairs, Bacon said.
"The word she's associated with in my mind is engagement," Bacon said. "She insisted on being engaged with everything, everyone at the church and, when I took her to dinner, being engaged with everyone in the restaurant. ... I've always thought the secret of her longevity is that she simply insisted on authentic engagement."
Wilkins herself attributed her long life to never drinking cola.
"My grandmother said it wasn't good for me," she said in 2008.
There may have been a couple of other secrets.
"Yes, she did like her martini," Bacon said, laughing.
And her daughter joked about her mother's "interesting" start to the day.
"For breakfast she likes half a grapefruit, all the sections cut out, sprinkled with sugar - and then rum," Jones said.