PHILADELPHIA -- It's hard to miss the two-tone 1979 Cadillac Coupe de Ville as it rolls down the streets of Coatesville, Pa. 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, 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 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. "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, whose relied on Flamer's advice during his eight years in politics, including, "Be honest and direct, because people aren't stupid."
William Lambert, 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 blacks 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 and 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 a Senate race to a debate on political doublespeak.
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."
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 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 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 sold only about a dozen pies.
So what's her secret to a long life?
She credits her longevity to churchgoing. She never misses a Sunday, arriving at 7:30 a.m. for the 9 a.m. service at Hutchinson UAME.