Alice Colbert dies at age 104

Accomplished cook and matriarch said that her devotion to her extended family kept her going

  • Alice Colbert
Alice Colbert
December 03, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

Alice Colbert, who lived to 104 and cooked and cut her own grass until 10 years ago, died of respiratory failure Sunday at her West Baltimore home.

Born Alice Sealy on Aug. 3, 1906, in West Baltimore, she was orphaned as a young child and was raised by her father's mother, whom she called Grandma Sealy.

"Alice knew and often visited her mother's family. She especially loved going to see her maternal grandma, Victoria Butler, who worked as a domestic housekeeper for several families in Towson," said her granddaughter, Paula Law of Chester, Va. "Alice was especially fond of Grandma Butler, who would visit with her every Thursday and bring her a whole nickel if she had been good that week."

Mrs. Colbert recalled watching the old United Railways and Electric Co.'s streetcars in her neighborhood. She attended St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church. She went to Booker T. Washington Junior High School and Carver Vocational Technical School, where she received a certificate for practical nursing.

She married her childhood sweetheart, John Colbert, in 1924 and moved to 515 W. Lanvale St. She never left Lanvale Street and raised her three daughters there. In later life, she moved westward on the same street.

Her husband died when she was a young woman. "Her family was extremely important, so she worked long days and very hard to provide for her family and to keep them together," her granddaughter said.

Mrs. Colbert began working as a housekeeper. Family members said her days began at 5:30 a.m. She said her prayers and prepared her girls for school. And while they lived directly across the street from the school, she reminded her children to follow her strict instructions to complete their daily chores and always love and watch out for each other. She raised enough money to send her daughters to a Roman Catholic high school, St. Frances Academy.

"Her days were long and exhausting, but she was never too tired to read a story, repeat nursery rhymes or just sit and rock her children to sleep," her granddaughter said.

On her day off, Mrs. Colbert volunteered at the girls' school to help on the playground or in the classroom. She attended Child Study Group Club meetings between her daily work. In later years, she worked as a custodial employee with Baltimore's public schools and retired in 1971.

"The kitchen was the gathering place in her home," her granddaughter said. "You would often find her there watching television and sharing a meal with a daughter or talking on the phone with one of her many grandchildren."

She also went on family outings and assisted her youngest daughter, Barbara Wilkes, who died in 2005 of Parkinson's disease.

Family members described her Sunday afternoon dinners: a pork shoulder, "golden brown" baked chicken, "extra cheesy" macaroni, candied sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, "perfectly cooked broccoli" and freshly made biscuits. She cooked family meals and baked until she was 98. She never drove a car and walked everywhere or rode buses. She insisted on carrying her own groceries.

"Traditionally, anyone crossing the threshold of her house would head straight to the dining room," her granddaughter said.

She was also an accomplished baker. She made sugar cookies, bread pudding, lemon meringue pie and cakes. Many years ago, she was awarded a first prize in the Afro American newspaper's cooking school contest.

"Her love for cooking was surpassed only by her joy of being surrounded by her family, especially her children and four generations of grandchildren," her granddaughter said. "Her eyes would twinkle with happiness when she was preparing meals, reading books or telling stories of the family history."

She rewarded her grandchildren with a supply of Mary Jane candies she kept in her handbag.

She often said, "My family means everything to me. It's what keeps me going," according to family members.

She also advised others to "work hard, help others, pray for them, and things will be all right."

Mrs. Colbert enjoyed traveling. She had visited Panama, Mexico, Rome and Great Britain. She also took in the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Florida, California, Alaska, Las Vegas and other places.

A funeral Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Edward's Roman Catholic Church, 901 Poplar Grove St., where she was active in parish activities.

In addition to her granddaughter, survivors include two daughters, Jean Curtis and Pauline Gross, both of Baltimore; 12 grandchildren; 24 great-grandchildren; and 28 great-great-grandchildren.

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