Oldest alum Coleman ’25 celebrates 107 years

Contributing Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2011

“We never get old. Every year you’re more beautiful,” Reverend Naomi Craig of Providence told Beatrice Coleman ’25 at her birthday party yesterday. And if Craig’s words are any indication, Coleman is certainly the most beautiful living holder of a Brown degree.

Presumably Brown’s oldest alum, Coleman celebrated her 107th birthday yesterday at a small gathering of students and faculty at Tockwotton Home at Fox Point.

Organized by Brown’s undergraduate chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha — a non-residential black sorority — Coleman’s birthday party featured some of her biggest fans. In attendance were family members, current members of AKA and three former presidents of its graduate chapter, faculty from the Office of Alumni Relations and Craig, who at 94-years old, was one of Coleman’s former piano students as a “youngster,” she said. Coleman joined AKA, the oldest Greek organization for black women, during her years at Pembroke College and continued her involvement in the organization for the rest of her life.

Even at 107 years, Coleman — affectionately known as “Bea” to most — was still the life of the party, sporting a large birthday balloon on her wheelchair and chatting happily with attendees.

“Do they know the alma mater?” Coleman almost immediately asked of the sorority members. Originally from Rhode Island and passionate about both Brown and history, Coleman is known to scold those who do not know the words to two songs — Brown’s alma mater and “The Star-Spangled Banner” — both of which she sang to the crowd and later played on the piano. Party organizers provided copies of the lyrics for the less-prepared guests.

“She’s 107 and still so full of pep,” said Beverly Ledbetter, vice president and general counsel and a former president of Iota Alpha — the graduate chapter that advises AKA undergraduates.

But Coleman’s resume hardly ends at AKA and the quality of “pep.”

“Such a tiny girl so deeply involved in history, but Beatrice smiles blissfully and says, ‘History is — beautiful!'” the 1925 yearbook says of her. She devoted much of her life to teaching history. After she graduated in 1925, unable to find a school for black children in Providence, Coleman moved to Philadelphia to teach at St. Mary’s Academy for Girls.

While she never married or had children, Coleman continued reaching out to youth by teaching piano lessons, acting as an assistant leader of a Girl Scout troop — one of her former troop members was also in attendance — and of course, maintaining involvement with her sorority sisters at AKA.

“She never missed a sorority meeting until she was 101,” said Bettye Williams-Clanton, current graduate adviser to AKA and a former president of Iota Alpha.

On display was a poster with Coleman’s graduation picture and two large cards with the signatures of over 200 Brown students. Williams-Clanton said this was appropriate, as Coleman was always “making sure absolutely everyone in the sorority got a birthday card on their birthday.”

The sorority members organized the cards for her by asking students in J. Walter Wilson, the Sharpe Refectory and Emery-Woolley dining hall to sign. The group asked each signer to donate $1 and raised about $150 for Breeze Against Wheeze, a 5K run and 3K walk in May that supports Hasbro Children’s Hospital’s Asthma Camp.

The cards included comments from undergraduates from “all walks of life,” Ledbetter said. Coleman is “the stuff of legend,” wrote Saudi Garcia ’14, and she is a “hero,” wrote Margaret Connelly ’14.

“You are an inspiration. Thank you for leading my way!” read a message from “Yeshi ’12.”

“Congrats! Here’s to 107 more!” Shawn Patterson ’12 wrote in thick blue pen.

Of course, no birthday party is complete without presents. Coleman received a Brown throw blanket, a “Trailblazer’s Certificate” calling her an “icon who courageously and independently embarked on an education at Pembroke College” and an official certificate signed by President Ruth Simmons congratulating her on her birthday and for being “one of our ever-truest alumnae” and an “inspiration to black students.”