Monday, December 29, 2008

Ella Mae Johnson hasn’t just followed American history, she’s lived it.

The 104-year-old woman from Cleveland plans to be in the District for one of the world’s most anticipated moments: the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

Mrs. Johnson, who is black and a former social worker, says she’ll be here in her wheelchair no matter the weather, to see the country’s first black president sworn into office.

“I admire him,” she said last week from her home at a retirement and assisted-care facility.

This will be the first inauguration for Mrs. Johnson, a graduate of Nashville’s Fisk University in 1925 who earned a master’s degree at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) School of Applied Social Sciences in 1928.

She admires Mr. Obama, a Democrat, for having a message that goes deeper than just setting an example of what blacks in the United States can accomplish.

But she is more impressed with his young family, his willingness to show affection to his wife, Michelle, his daughters and his roots to Kenya.

“This affects young people in a way that’s different,” said Mrs. Johnson, who on Jan. 13 will be 105. “I think it’s good for us all. He’s leading the country in the direction of taking care of each other.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, invited Mrs. Johnson to the inauguration at the suggestion of the retirement home.

“It is fitting that she should mark her 105th birthday this January by witnessing the swearing-in of our nation’s first African-American president,” Mr. Brown said. “I am honored to be part of her journey and humbled by her legacy.”

Mrs. Johnson’s nurse, Iris Williams, will make the flight with her and stay with her at an assisted-care facility in Georgetown.

“I’m looking forward to it on a lot of different levels,” said Mrs. Williams, 50. “Personally, I’ve always wanted to see an inauguration, regardless of how I got there or where I stayed. To know I’m going to see it with Mrs. Johnson, to see it through the eyes of a centenarian, is just fabulous. Her perspective on this is going to be very insightful for me.”

During a 1973 tour of Kenya, Mrs. Johnson talked with people struggling in the years after Kenya won its independence from the British in 1963.

Helping the people of Kenya became her passion. She included requests for donations to Kenyan aid organizations on invitations to her 100th birthday, raising $3,000.

Mrs. Johnson said she’d like to see all people benefit from Mr. Obama’s rise to power. “I don’t mean just every American,” she said.

She also wouldn’t mind a chance to meet the Obamas.

“I would like it,” Mrs. Johnson said in a soft, thoughtful tone.

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