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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

You may remember the story of Ella Mae Johnson, which we told last year at the time of the presidential inauguration. Today a remembrance: Ella Mae Johnson has died at the age of 106.

She'd been a witness to over a century of African-American history, and she was determined to be in Washington to see Barack Obama sworn in as president.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro recalls that day and her remarkable life.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: When Ella Mae Johnson went to graduate school to become a social worker, this was in Cleveland in 1926, she was the first black student at that school, but she wasn't allowed to live on campus.

She was a pioneering professional woman. She made it in the larger world with an air of formality and dignity. But on Inauguration Day she was willing to look a little silly in order to sit outside in the bitter cold for seven hours.

She sat in her wheelchair covered from head to toe in a bright blue sleeping bag, with just her round glasses and her nose peeking through. She was in good humor when strangers stopped to talk to her.

Unidentified Man #1: Ella Mae, how are you doing in there?

Unidentified Man #2: Congratulations.

Ms. ELLA MAE JOHNSON (Retired Social Worker): Im fine. Now all I need is to rub my nose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Okay, hold on.

SHAPIRO: The trip from Cleveland had been exhausting. She talked about what Barack Obama's presidency meant to her.

Ms. JOHNSON: My hope for him is my hope for the country. If he fails, the country fails. He knows and he says, Not me, but you. Not us, but all of us.

SHAPIRO: There was a surprise that came out of that trip to Washington: a book contract. Next month, her memoir will be published. It's called "It Is Well With My Soul: The Extraordinary Life Of A 106-Year-Old Woman."

When the galley proof for her book arrived recently, she picked it up and kissed it. She was proud that she'd leave that legacy.

Ms. PATRICIA MULCAHY (Co-Writer): Ella Mae's real lesson is that compassion is what will get you through life.

SHAPIRO: Patricia Mulcahy is Johnson's co-writer

Ms. MULCAHY: She was orphaned when she was only four years old and literally raised by the next-door neighbors. And this incredible example of compassion, outreach, whatever you want to call it, informed the rest of her life.

SHAPIRO: She'd gotten help from others too, when she needed money to go to college. But after she graduated, she wanted to turn things around. She wanted to be the one who gave to others. So she became a social worker. She was always reaching out to someone or raising money for some cause.

Last year over Thanksgiving weekend, she had a stroke. She didn't want to let other people take care of her. She'd try to walk and she'd fall.

Her friend Betty Miller talks about the loving letter that came from one of her two sons.

Ms. BETTY MILLER (Friend): He just wrote her a letter. Emailed it to me, and I printed it out. And he just told her she'd been a social worker for years helping others, she'd been compassionate, now this is her time to get some help. This is her time to accept the fact that she's 106 years old.

She read it and I said, Ella Mae, do you understand it? She said, I'll try.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: There was one last act of determination. When Ella Mae Johnson died Monday evening, she died where she wanted. She was out of the hospital. She was out of the nursing home. She died in her apartment at her upscale assisted living facility.

She was surrounded by friends, reading her favorite passages from the Bible.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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