Valiant Lady Vel

Phillips was a major figure in city’s history

[Editor’s note: Vel Phillips, the pioneering Milwaukee politician, activist and public servant, died this week at age 94. She was a towering figure in the civil rights movement here in the 1960s and the first African-American and first woman in three public offices in this state. Here is a profile of her written by Barbara Miner and published in Milwaukee Magazine in January 2005.]

It is the fourth Saturday and the downstairs hall of St. Matthews CME in the central city is filled for the Community-Brainstorming Conference – the black community’s monthly get-together to debate, socialize, see and be seen. As people line up for bacon, eggs, grits and toast, Vel Phillips stands at the podium going over last-minute details before the discussion begins. She is in her glory, doing what gives her the most pride, energy and sense of accomplishment – moderating a political panel.

An elderly man approaches Vel and hands her a tin embossed with red roses and filled with cookies. They talk for a few moments and then he gently pats her on the shoulder and says good-bye.

“When I saw that pretty can in the store, I thought of Vel,” the man later explains. “It was the flower that struck my attention. Most ladies would like a pretty can like this to put things in. I know Vel likes cookies and she loves pretty cans. It didn’t cost much, and with Vel, it’s not the money but the thought. And I thought of her.”

The man is Rev. David K. Blathers, pastor at Paradise Sanctuary Baptist Church at 27th and Clarke. He remembers Vel from when he was a boy and she worked at the Lapham Park playground. “She had a lot of influence on me when I was growing up, about how to strive, how to press on and always stay in school,” he says. His estimation of her remains strong as he tells of Vel’s commitment “to help us – not just black people, but all of us.” The incident is typical, one more person showing admiration for Vel.

Michael Phillips, one of Vel’s two sons, is dumbstruck by how well-known his mother is, even today. “I cannot tell you how often a stranger has come up and asked if I am related to Vel Phillips,” says the Madison lawyer. “Blacks in Milwaukee are so familiar with her face that they recognize me as someone who looks like her. That’s how deep the identification is.”

Vel has such wide name recognition primarily because of her many firsts, especially her 1956 election as the first African-American and first woman to Milwaukee’s Common Council. But it’s more. She has shattered myths of black inferiority. She is a mentor and role model for a younger generation. She is a survivor who, despite both personal and political setbacks, holds her head high. For all of this, she is accorded deep respect.

“If you play poker, Vel is the river card – the card that determines the entire game,” explains Joan Prince, a vice chancellor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a close friend. “She can swing it for one side or the other. Her opinion counts.”

Vel (everyone calls her by her first name) is most involved as vice chair of the Community Brainstorming Conference. She is also a board member of the Milwaukee NAACP and a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and is active with The Links and The Girlfriends, two prominent (and, some say, exclusive) black women’s organizations.

And throughout the last election, Vel was back in the news as honorary chair of state Sen. Gwen Moore’s successful congressional bid. Calling Moore’s big win “a history-making event,” Vel was center stage at the November 2 victory party at the Italian Community Center, the television cameras focusing on the diminutive 80-year-old locked arm in arm with the city’s newest political star, Wisconsin’s first black congresswoman.

In this often divided city, Vel spans race, gender and generations. She can be seen at peace marches, labor protests and legal banquets. She frequently speaks before church, school and women’s groups. She sings with the Raging Grannies, a group of elderly liberals.

As she enters her ninth decade, she is legendary for her energy, tenacity and commitment to doing “the right thing.”

“I suppose there might be some who view Vel as history,” says Reserve Judge Russell Stamper, who practiced law with Vel’s husband, Dale, and is chair of the brainstorming conference. “But Vel’s as active as any 25-year-old person I know.
“Vel,” Stamper adds, “is past, present and future.”

“I’m not an easy person,” Vel cautions during an early interview. And she’s right. First is the difficulty of uncovering her history, which has only been recorded in bits and pieces. Second is her personality. Complicated and idiosyncratic, Vel can frustrate and charm.

When I first contacted her for this story, she did not want to participate. She says she doesn’t trust the white media, feels no need for more publicity and has more pressing matters, such as the renovation of her condominium on North Prospect Avenue. The project has taken more time, money and energy than anticipated. She has been staying with a friend and says it is “very discombobulating” not to be in her own home. She also wants to complete her memoirs, begun in 2002 when she joined the adjunct faculty at the Marquette University Law School. Like the condo renovation, the memoirs are taking longer than planned.

Ultimately, though, Vel promised full cooperation, and we set up three interviews. She soon revealed herself as a fascinating storyteller who has more than a lifetime’s worth of insights.

Velvalea Rogers was born in Milwaukee on February 18, 1924, the second of three daughters. Thelma and Russell Rogers were established members of Milwaukee’s small but growing African-American community. Vel’s father was a businessman who at one time owned a garage and a restaurant. Her parents were supportive and loving, she says, and the family was comfortable but by no means rich.

Vel’s mother was the dominant influence, keeping her daughters in line with a list of rules: no smoking, no swearing, no drinking and never let a young man drive you to the lakefront. And, of course, get a good education. “No one necessarily talked about attending college, it was just expected,” says Vel.
Vel’s mother worked the polls on election day and Vel became interested in politics. She remembers eavesdropping on her parents’ conversations with James Dorsey, a black man who ran unsuccessfully for alderman three times beginning in 1936.

Dorsey evidently impressed the young girl.

“Once when my mother and I were baking cookies – raisin and oatmeal – my mother said, ‘Your sister is going to be a dietician. What do you have in mind?’ ” Vel recollects. “And I said, ‘I want to be a lawyer like Mr. Dorsey. Can I be a lawyer?’ And my mother would say, ‘Of course you can, honey, but it will be hard because there aren’t many women lawyers.’ ”

At an early age, Vel also understood the politics of color within the African-American community. Her mother was born in Oklahoma City, orphaned at a young age and sent with her two sisters to live with relatives in Manitowish Waters in upstate Wisconsin. There she encountered an unusual situation. The relatives had crossed the color line and assimilated into the white community.
“Mother’s relatives were passing” as white, Vel notes. “I hate to say it, but it’s the truth.”

But her mother’s oldest sister was quite dark-skinned and she blew the family’s cover, Vel says. After a time, her mother moved to Milwaukee, married and began raising her own family.

In high school, Vel gained attention for her speaking skills. When she graduated from North Division in 1942, she won a national oratory scholarship sponsored by The Black Elks, a fraternal organization. (In 1944, Martin Luther King Jr. won the Atlanta contest but failed to take state.)

Vel used the scholarship to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., the country’s pre-eminent black college. Afterward, she attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, where in 1951 she became the first African-American woman to graduate. She moved back to Milwaukee with her husband, W. Dale Phillips, and they became the first husband-wife attorney team admitted to the federal bar in Milwaukee.

Of the famous people she has met – from Thurgood Marshall, the late African-American Supreme Court justice, to Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, and Martin Luther King Jr. – Vel says Marshall made the most lasting impression. His advice: All lawyers, especially African-American lawyers, have a special responsibility to make the world a better place.
“From then on, that became my goal – to somehow make a difference,” says Vel.

Around this time, she legally changed her name to Vel. (In hindsight, she now says she would have kept Velvalea and used it as a one-name moniker, “like Cher or Madonna.” An admirer of strong women, Vel also speaks highly of Martha Stewart.)

Vel’s first run for office was an unsuccessful bid in 1953 for School Board. But what most influenced her was working with the League of Women Voters on door-to-door voter registration in the central city.

“The homes, especially the ones in the rear, there’d be no real heat, just space heaters,” she recalls. “The homes were run-down, with rickety porches.… That was my first experience with true poverty, and my heart just turned over.”

When Milwaukee was reapportioned, Vel saw the chance to elect a black alderman. The original idea was for Dale to run. But one day, Dale told her,

“Honey, this is not my cup of tea. But you have the same credentials I have.”

Vel didn’t take much convincing. There was one problem: money. Then Dale let out a secret. For years, he had been putting money into a “mink coat fund,” and there was $3,600, a handsome sum in those days. Dale suggested they sleep on the decision.

The next day, Vel’s mind was made up.

Dale, meanwhile, had second thoughts.

“So I said to him, ‘Dale, I’d rather run than have a mink coat,’ ” Vel reminisces. “ ‘And if it’s for me, I should do what I want with it.’ And of course, I finally won the argument.”

Vel won that 1956 election and remained the only African-American on the Common Council for 15 years and still the only woman when she left in 1971 to become a judge.

During her first term, Vel watched and listened. At first no one knew what to call her. After consulting several books on etiquette, “Madame Alderman” was adopted. But that didn’t solve the bathroom problem.

From the day Vel took office in 1956, aldermen criticized her “invasion” of the aldermanic washroom at the rear of the chambers. The closest women’s room was down the hall and Vel was pregnant when she took office. Because she did not want to miss council discussions, she ignored the “Men” sign. After Ald. Norman Hundt found her in the washroom one afternoon, he ordered a new sign that read, “Men Only,” with the “Only” in italics. Vel stood her ground, offering some well-mannered guidance to her male colleagues. “I’ve never walked in on anyone, and I always knock,” she said. The city attorney eventually ruled there was “nothing on the books” preventing a woman from using a men’s restroom.

Then came the tumultuous 1960s. Blacks were demanding their rights and facing resistance from a white society dedicated to Jim Crow and its policies of legal segregation. White mobs hurled racist epithets – and worse – at black demonstrators. Blacks fought back with marches, protests and, in some cases, civil unrest and urban riots. Milwaukee was not immune to the upheaval, earning a reputation as “The Selma of the North.”

Vel was involved in the movements of the day. She attended the 1963 march for civil rights in Washington, D.C., decried discrimination against black members of Milwaukee’s police department, criticized segregation in the Milwaukee Public Schools, supported public funds for family planning services in Milwaukee, marched against the Vietnam War, supported the farmworkers’ grape boycott, fought for cleaner air in Milwaukee and called for the city’s indoor swimming pools to be open to women on Saturdays.

But it is in the fight for open housing – the city’s seminal civil rights battle – that Vel Phillips made her mark.

She had been concerned with housing ever since working with the League of Women Voters. In 1961, she joined a sit-in at the state Capitol supporting unsuccessful legislation banning racial discrimination in housing. In 1962, she introduced her first open-housing ordinance in Milwaukee. She was the lone alderman in support and remained so for years. Sometimes her colleagues refused to even discuss the issue.

“Seventeen white Milwaukee aldermen listened silently for 30 minutes Tuesday while their lone Negro colleague urged them to consider the adoption of a city fair-housing ordinance,” the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote on June 14, 1967. “Then, without a word of comment or criticism, they voted to reject the proposal.”
That summer, Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council launched their open-housing marches. Vel says Groppi first asked her if that was okay. “Of course I said yes,” she says.

Groppi and the Youth Council picketed aldermen’s homes, a tactic Vel supported, though she did not join in. “I can talk to them,” Vel explained at the time. “I don’t have to picket them.”

That summer, some black power advocates criticized her, saying she was most interested in furthering her political career. Vel refused to engage in what she considered name-calling. “I’ll discuss issues anytime but not personalities,” she told the media.

The criticisms, however, were nothing compared to the threatening phone calls and letters from racist whites, including what Vel calls “a stalker” who wrote about what she wore and what she attended.

It was the bullets, however, that scared her most.

One afternoon when the family was not at home, someone shot a bullet through the window of the side porch and it lodged in the oven. The family found a note that read, “Go Back to Africa.”

“That’s when I said, ‘This is too dangerous for the kids,’ ” Vel recalls. She phoned her mother and sent the two boys to California for an extended visit.

In July 1967, the marches were interrupted by what became known as Milwaukee’s race riots, part of a national explosion of pent-up black rage that led to 23 deaths in Newark and 43 deaths in Detroit. Milwaukee’s two-day riot, which left three dead, began the night of July 30, fueled by rumors that a white policeman had killed an African-American boy. Before long, the central city was beset with arson, gunshots and looting. Desperate city officials called on Vel and black ministers to try to quiet the crowds, but to no avail. Events reached a peak about 2:45 a.m., when heavy rains caused rioters to seek cover.

Around 3 a.m., Mayor Henry Maier called out the National Guard and instituted a 24-hour curfew. Only emergency and medical personnel were to leave their homes. Mail delivery and bus service were suspended. In the central city, The Milwaukee Journal reported, “Every pedestrian and civilian vehicle was challenged by troops armed with bayonet-tipped rifles.”

Vel says Maier wanted her and leaders such as Groppi to sponsor a rally and call for calm, but they declined. “I think personally that Henry overreacted and the police reacted to his overreaction,” Vel says. “And we didn’t want to also overreact.”

Although the riots were over, demands for open housing continued. This time, the marchers ventured across the 16th Street viaduct only to be met by hostile white mobs. On August 29, in retaliation for the marches, the NAACP Freedom House near 15th and Vliet Streets was firebombed. Mayor Maier banned nighttime demonstrations. On the night of August 30, however, Vel and Father Groppi held a rally at the burned-out Freedom House and led a march down city streets. Police arrested 137 people, including Groppi and Vel.

“There are times – if you believe in the right of protest and demonstration and open occupancy – that you have to show this,” she said in explaining why she joined the protest.

Mayor Maier and fellow aldermen took Vel to task. But they had a fierce opponent whose determination was matched by lightning-quick verbal skills. In one exchange in September 1967, an alderman asked Vel why she didn’t “keep [her] people in line.”

“She looked down at a newspaper which had front-page stories about the sentencing of two white men,” The Milwaukee Journal recounts. “One was accused of a mass murder in Chicago and another of attempted murder here.… ‘Why don’t you keep your people in line?’ she responded, pointing to the newspaper stories.”

The marches continued; 1968 came and still there was no ordinance. Finally, Milwaukee’s powerbrokers realized they could not hold onto the past. On April 30, 1968, two weeks after King’s assassination, when the nation was again on the brink of racial disintegration, Milwaukee’s open-housing bill finally passed.

This spring, shortly after Tom Barrett was sworn in as mayor, Vel was riding the bus. A black gentleman recognized her and started a conversation. Almost apologetically, he said he had not voted for Marvin Pratt. (Vel had sworn Pratt in as mayor in January and had publicly supported his campaign.) She remembers the man explaining, “When I went into the voting booth, I could not wrap my brain around anything he had done to make his mark, like Lloyd Barbee and [school] desegregation and you and open housing.”

Vel pauses as she tells the story. “I thought about that,” she continues. “The thing is, maybe it was true.”

Vel says Milwaukee has a well-deserved reputation as a polarized and racist community, but she has high hopes that Mayor Barrett can bring the city together. “He was a good Congressman and he’ll be a good mayor,” she says.
And then there’s Gary George, at one time Wisconsin’s most powerful black politician. What does she think of his pleading guilty to a federal conspiracy charge and his four-year sentence?

“I don’t want anyone to think I don’t appreciate the seriousness of his violations,” she says of George. “And the thing that cut to the quick was that those monies, at least the OIC [Opportunities Industrialization Center] monies, were designated for the poor.”

So why did she write a letter to Federal Judge Rudolph Randa asking for leniency for George? “I’ve been a longtime friend of the family, and there were many of us who wanted to support his mother Audrey,” she says without apology.

In her letter, Vel argued that George was no longer in office and therefore “is no longer a danger to the community.” A Spivak and Bice column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel commented on the letter’s unusual logic. Vel laughed when she read the column. “I left myself open for that,” she says.

Vel’s picture has appeared frequently in the local media and in national publications such as Jet, where she graced the May 17, 1956, cover. Even today, she is known for hearing the click of a camera across the room.

Perhaps her most extraordinary photo op involved President John F. Kennedy. According to the book President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves, Vel was one of Kennedy’s few African-American campaign workers. Kennedy realized the importance of the African-American vote and wanted a picture with Vel to use in his literature. It took three photo sessions.

“He had wanted to make sure she looked dark enough,” the book recounts.
Vel willingly retells the tale. She understood her value to Kennedy and was not going to complain. While she eschews labels, one term she applies to herself is “yellow dog Democrat.” The term has its origins in the South and African-American support for the Democratic Party. “People would say, if you had someone on the Republican side and nothing but a yellow dog on the Democratic ticket, you would still vote for the yellow dog.”

Vel says she will always be a Democrat. “But I have had dear friends in the Republican Party,” she is quick to add. She likes former Gov. Tommy Thompson, even though she strongly disagreed with him on W-2 and school vouchers, and she likes Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker despite their political differences. “You know what they say about a woman who is nine months pregnant, that she is very, very pregnant?” Vel says. “Well, Scott Walker is very, very Republican.”

It was a Democratic governor, Patrick Lucey, who gave Vel her next first. In 1971, Lucey appointed her to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, making her Wisconsin’s first African-American judge. What might have been a stepping stone to further advancement was stopped short, however. Vel did not win election in 1972, unable to overcome the double punch of media criticism of her job performance (disorganization, being late) and the difficulties facing an African-American in a county-wide election.

For the first time in 16 years, Vel was not in public office. Instead, she taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and practiced law before bouncing back. In 1978, she became secretary of state, the first African-American to win statewide office.

It’s hard to imagine anyone less suited to an administrative job than Vel Phillips. “It was boring,” she says. “Boring, boring, boring.” Before long, she was in the media spotlight, but for the wrong reasons. The Milwaukee Journal, in particular, criticized Vel for taking honorariums for speeches, for sketchy logs on how far she drove her state-owned car and for using state telephones for personal calls, especially to her husband, Dale, in Milwaukee.

The most serious complaints involved the honorariums. In 1981, the State Ethics Board reprimanded Vel, ordering her to repay $8,000 for “43 speeches prepared wholly or in part by her employees on state time and with the use of state supplies and equipment,” according to the board’s annual report. When she ran for re-election in 1982, she lost the primary.

Vel remains unrepentant, saying she was entitled to the honorariums. “I never felt I did anything wrong,” she says.

“Looking back, it really illustrates how petty and racist and anti-woman it was,” she continues. “And it made me a real heroine in the black community. They knew that in urban areas across the country, the newspapers would pump up black politicians only to enjoy tearing them down. And that’s what they did to me.”

Although this was the low point of Vel’s public persona, the deepest blow to her life was yet to come. On April 14, 1988, her husband, law partner, best friend, sharpest critic and most loyal supporter died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
Vel met Dale Phillips more than 40 years earlier at a party after she returned from Howard. “It was love at first sight,” Vel says. Formally married on September 12, 1948, at St. Mark’s AME in Milwaukee, she now admits they eloped the previous November, scooting off to Dubuque, Iowa. Although close friends knew, it was years before Vel told her mother.

“She married the man who absolutely adored her and who did everything he could to help put her where she is today,” says Gwen Jackson, an African-American volunteer and activist who remembers her from the scholarship Vel won and the hot gossip about her elopement. “It’s really a great love story.”

For many, Dale’s standing is on par with Vel’s. For many years, he was president of both the Milwaukee and the state chapters of the NAACP, and he built Wisconsin’s largest black law firm. He was also a leader at Columbia Savings, the state’s only black-owned savings and loan.

Tybie Taglin, who has known her since high school, says of Vel and Dale’s relationship: “They gave to each other. Each would have moved to the positions they were in no matter what, but they were so strong for each other.”
For Vel, the loss is still painful. “Every day, I still think of him,” she says.

No longer driving, Vel has honed the skill of asking for rides – “Driving Miss Vel,” as one person put it. She is an inveterate phone talker, known for calling people late at night and early in the morning. When I mention to Judge Stamper that Vel took almost an hour on the phone to explain why it wasn’t a good time to be interviewed, he laughs. “If you don’t have time to talk, don’t talk to Vel,” he says.

Vel can come across as scattered, distracted and disorganized; her time management skills are awful and she constantly overbooks her schedule. But these appear to be lifelong traits. Vel is excited by people and ideas, not the thought of an orderly desk.

As is true with many elderly people, there are rumors that Vel is “failing.” When I pick her up for our first interview, out of habit and deference to her age, I offer my arm as we go down the steps. But she looks at me as if I am crazy. “I don’t need help,” she says as she bounds down the steps in platform flip-flops, a style of shoe I gave up long ago for fear of breaking an ankle.

I discover that the physical agility is matched by mental dexterity. For our second interview, Vel and I are on our way to the Astor Hotel for a quiet lunch. We’re making small talk and I mention that my daughter just left for a semester of study in Santiago, Chile, and that I am jealous.

“You’re not really jealous, that’s not quite the right word,” Vel says. “I mean, there’s no malice or spite involved.”

That’s true, I admit. I think awhile and then say I’m envious.

“Yes, that’s a better word,” Vel says.

Complaints that she may be failing are not the only criticisms. Yet some disparagements – Vel’s fondness for being in front of a crowd or a camera, an eagerness to take the limelight – are precisely the qualities needed to survive in politics.

“In order to be a good politician, you have to have an ego,” says Reuben Harpole, a program officer with the Helen Bader Foundation and a founding member of the Community Brainstorming Conference. “If not, you get beaten up all over the place.”

Like many, Harpole first knew Vel through newspaper articles and the community grapevine. He remembers talking with Vel’s father and her sister, Connie (10 years Vel’s junior), when he worked at the A&P grocery store at Fifth and North.

Among Vel’s friends, her shortcomings are well-known, as are her strengths. “Vel is one of the most interesting people I know,” says Gwen Jackson, who, as a board member of Community Brainstorming, sees her regularly. “A lot of people don’t understand her, and I think there’s a lot of jealousy. But you can’t take away what she’s accomplished. And why should you?”

During one of our interviews, I had asked Vel about the difficulties she faced during her career. Apparently, she felt she hadn’t answered the question. So at the Community Brainstorming meeting, she grabbed my arm.

“You know, I’ve been thinking about your question about what was harder, being a black or being a woman,” she says. “And I’m not sure I explained it adequately.”
She begins her explanation with a story. She once discussed the issue with Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Chisholm’s perspective, says Vel, was that “being a woman is harder to break through than being an African-American.”

Vel knows this ruffles feathers in the black community. In fact, a few days earlier, she talked the matter over with another black woman, who said without hesitation, “You never stop being black, and race is always paramount. After all, you’re born black.”

To which Vel responded, “But you never stop being a woman either!” Certainly being African-American presented many obstacles, Vel says. But after she overcame them, after she was admitted to law school or elected to the Common Council, she felt more the burden and stereotypes of her gender.

“We are a very racist country, unfortunately,” Vel explains. “But once you’re there, they [whites] will realize you’re just like everybody else. But the men never forget that you are a woman. Never, ever, ever.”

A story she tells about Mayor Maier also is particularly revealing. Maier liked her; he even sold his home on Booth Street to Vel and Dale in the early 1960s. But he was angry at her for pushing open housing.

“Henry felt I had let him down,” she recollects. “He’d call me into his office and read the riot act and swear like a sailor.… I’d sit there and listen and then tell him, ‘If all you are going to do is get mad at me, don’t call me in anymore.’ That’s when he’d say, ‘You are sassy and Dale ought to give you a good beating.’ ”

Unlike many older politicians, Vel still has the ideals and energy of her youth.
Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Maxine White is in almost daily contact with her and describes their relationship as mother/daughter, sister/sister, colleague/colleague. The only other African-American woman to have served on the Wisconsin bench, White, who was appointed in 1992, has a portrait of Vel in her judicial robes prominently displayed on the wall. “Vel says ‘yes’ to everything,” White notes. “Even though she has all those firsts, her greatest gift is her ability to give of herself and to encourage others to do the same.”

Vel has never been shy about her politics, and during one interview, she wore three buttons: one proclaiming “No Hate,” one commemorating Thurgood Marshall and one with the Martin Luther King quote, “We must be the drum majors for peace.” She strongly supports public education, worries about vouchers for private schools and is committed to integration – not, she says, because of nonsense about blacks learning better next to white children. “But you do learn to appreciate another person’s culture, and that’s what education should be all about.” She also believes strongly in a woman’s right to choose and in gay marriage.

Asked, as she inevitably is, to gauge progress during her half-century of activism, she refers to the NAACP Waltz – “two steps forward, a side step and one step backward. Which means, of course, that you haven’t gone real far.”

Vel’s personal life is also waltzing in two directions, one eye on the future and one on the past. Her husband and two sisters are dead, as are many of those who also left historic imprints on Milwaukee – from Groppi to school desegregation lawyer Lloyd Barbee. But she has two sons (Michael and Dale, both of whom live in Wisconsin) [editor’s note: Her son Dale preceded her in death], four grandchildren and a great-grandson.

Overall, though, she is forced to pay more attention to obituaries than to birth notices. Then there are also the inevitable problems that come with age. She admits she sleeps only five or so hours a night, not enough. She is small – 90 pounds, she says – and her eating habits are of concern. She has a distinct tendency that bothers some but that others shrug off – of eating little and packing up doggie bags at restaurants and social luncheons. Yet she doesn’t smoke or drink and says she doesn’t take any medications except an occasional aspirin.

Vel’s big fear is Alzheimer’s. “That’s the one thing I wouldn’t want to have,” she says. “I like having an active mind.”

But she has no intention of slowing down. She doesn’t even have time for movies. Struggling to remember the last film she saw in a theater, she finally says, “that one with Kevin Costner and the Indians,” referring to 1990’s Dances With Wolves.

“I’ve had a pretty good ride, wouldn’t you agree?” she says. “I think I’ll just die with my boots on.”