This profile is the second in a yearlong series titled The Root's Salute to Unsung Heroes, which will put a weekly spotlight on African Americans who have been recognized by the Corporation for National and Community Service as Drum Majors for Service. The inspiration for the honor is the spirit of community service that Martin Luther King Jr. described in his 1968 sermon "The Drum Major Instinct."
Marguirette Levere is a slight woman — 5 feet tall, under 100 pounds — who is known in her Maryland community as something of a selfless giant. Church missionary, community volunteer, dispenser of heartfelt advice, role model, fierce mother-protector, she has been a benevolent presence around the rural community of Long Green for longer than anyone can remember — which is not an idle claim. Levere is 106 years old.
Levere's pastor at the Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Long Green, the Rev. Joan L. Wharton, sums up Levere's legendarily angelic force within her community in northern Baltimore County: "People want to live right when they get in her presence."
Levere, who has been designated by the White House as one of more than 1,000 recipients of the MLK Drum Major for Service Awards, has slowed down in recent years. She can no longer keep up the pace of volunteer service — not like the days when she'd cook for neighbors when they were sick or round up their kids for play activities or just spread her "pearls of wisdom" (as Wharton describes them) to people with troubles.
She stays home a lot now. "I've been sitting down all day," she said one recent afternoon.
But one thing that keeps Levere alert and active is the care of her daughter Barbara. Folks who know Marguirette Levere know that Barbara, who has been a severely disabled cerebral palsy victim since she was born 77 years ago, has been her constant companion. Barbara cannot talk or walk without assistance.
"She's my little girl," Levere says. Caring for a severely disabled family member has never been considered her lifelong "burden" (one of her other daughters actually stumbles over the word, noting that "we were brought up not to think that way") but one of her daily tasks.
"The idea of 'putting her someplace,' that was out of the question," says Levere's daughter Joan Powell. "We weren't allowed to even talk like that."
Levere's children — the six who are still alive — remember the routine. Every morning Levere would get up at 5 o'clock and make breakfast for her husband, John, who ran a sodding business, raised livestock and worked at various times as a chauffeur.
Then Levere would attend to Barbara, bathing, dressing and grooming her. She devised a way of getting Barbara to the bathroom. "She'd walk behind Barbara, with her hands under Barbara's arms to hold her up," Powell says.
She also figured out a method to get Barbara downstairs. "She'd sit her at the top of the stairs, then bump her down, one stair at a time," Powell says.
Before John Levere died in 1989, it was he who carried Barbara upstairs to her bedroom at night or, if there was a need to travel somewhere, carry her to the family car. After his death, other family members were brought in to help out.
Marguirette Levere prepared meals for the family, with a special plate for Barbara, which often included ground meat to avoid choking. Levere's family responsibilities didn't interfere with her church activities, including choir practice, preparing cooked foods for needy parishioners and working on planning committees. "One of us had to be there to take care of Barbara," Powell recalls. But Barbara was usually there for Sunday services.
Levere was always a featured speaker at the church's regular Friends and Family Days, when "people would come together and talk about the rich history within this community," Wharton says.
As the oldest member of the community, Levere carried the most history within her, including recalling in vivid terms neighbors who were former slaves. "Her talks were always about service," Wharton says. "They were about helping people. She'd say that, when you help somebody else, in turn you are helping yourself."
When Barbara got sick in 2005, requiring that a feeding tube be surgically implanted, the job of caring for her became tougher, especially having to navigate the stairs, Powell says. That's when Levere and Barbara moved to Powell's home, 20 minutes away in Sparks. "Every day [Marguirette] still tells me that she doesn't live here and she wants to go home," Powell says with a laugh.
But there are plenty of visitors. Levere's nine children have so far produced 33 grandchildren, 92 great-grandchildren and, at last count, 37 great-great-grandchildren. When the family put on a 100th-birthday party in a catering hall on the grounds of the nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, 250 people attended.
Levere is still in good health. She takes no medications, and she reads (including newspapers, biographies of President Obama and the Bible) without glasses.
Others, including Powell and her sister Julia Johnson, are now entrusted with the care of Barbara. But Marguirette Levere still combs Barbara's hair every day.
Edmund Newton is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.