Journal Sentinel file photo Ald. Vel Phillips in 1967
The older we get, the further back our minds like to wander. When I called Vel Phillips to hear her thoughts on turning 90 — which happens Tuesday — she talked about growing up in Milwaukee, Saturday afternoons at the movies, favorite teachers and a mother who taught her that kindness counts.
Every night at the dinner table, Vel and her two sisters had to say one good thing they had done that day, even if it was just being nice to a classmate.
Mom and Dad emphasized the importance of going to college and avoiding trouble. Vel remembers being whisked out of a movie theater by her sister and taken right home after a disturbance erupted when some boys tried to sneak in a back door.
The solid parenting at home was reinforced by the likes of Margaret Borkowski, Vel's third grade teacher at Garfield Avenue School who called her by her given name, Velvalea, inspired her to love learning and comforted her with kisses on the top of her head. Even days short of her 90th birthday, Vel speaks of this as if it were last week.
I eventually got Vel to discuss her many firsts in a long career on the front lines of the civil rights and women's movements. And even then she recalled the way her mother, Thelma Rodgers, felt about Vel leading marches day after day for fair and open housing in Milwaukee in the 1960s, often in the face of great hostility.
"My mother didn't think it was ladylike to be running up and down the street yelling and screaming," Vel said. "I said, 'Mom, I'm not going to be doing that. We'll be marching and singing freedom songs. It's going to be very orderly.' Of course, it was not quite that good. I'd come home with feces in my hair. It was not pleasant."
Vel redefined ladylike around here. After attending Howard University in Washington, D.C., on scholarship, she became the first black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1951. Her husband, Dale, also was a lawyer.
In 1956, she became the first female alderman in Milwaukee's history, and also the first African-American on the council. Two years later, she was elected the first black member of the Democratic National Committee, and a newspaper at the time called her the busiest woman in Milwaukee.
Now, we're accustomed to women and people of color serving at all levels of government, but back then Vel faced resentment and obstacles. There was no women's restroom in the council chambers, and some male aldermen objected to sharing their facilities with her. "It's too ridiculous," was Vel's quote when asked about it by a reporter.
"I cried myself to sleep many, many nights. I didn't want my husband to know," she said.
But her determination was unwavering. In 1971, she became the first black woman to serve as a judge in Wisconsin, and seven years later was the first woman and African-American elected to a statewide constitutional office as secretary of state during the administration of Gov. Lee Dreyfus.
"He was so funny," Vel said. "I just loved him, but he was a Republican. He said, 'You can be a Democrat and I'll be a Republican and we'll love each other.' I said, 'Do you tell your wife that you love me?' He said, 'I tell her all the time.'"
Life races by, and Vel is left feeling that she took for granted her firsts and her brushes with greatness. She always thought she was just in the right place at the right time. No big deal.
"If I had it to do over again, I think I would have appreciated having a close relationship with three presidents: LBJ, JFK and Jimmy Carter. Obama, I'm not close to him, but he knows who I am. I have corresponded with him.
"And Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall, people that I knew on a first-name basis. They would call me and we would talk. I had all their private numbers."
Vel lives independently in a condo on Milwaukee's east side. She suffered two strokes last year, which have slowed her down. Her weight hovers somewhere around wispy. She no longer drives.
Various organizations ask her on a regular basis to speak at events and to accept awards. She will give a keynote address in Madison next month at a UW event marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. An association of women judges plans to honor her soon. And the Milwaukee Common Council has invited her to City Hall to make a fuss over her birthday.
These events sometimes leave her feeling blue, she said. "All the wonderful people who were with me along the way are gone. I didn't expect my mother and father to be living, of course, but my husband and one of my sons and both of my sisters — all gone."
Even at 90, Vel gets riled up when she talks about attempts to roll back voter rights, public money going to private schools, Trayvon Martin's death, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and how obvious she thinks it is that he knew the freeway bridge was closed as political payback.
If Dr. King were around now, she said, "I think he'd be kicking butt just like he did before, in his own way and peacefully."
She told me she doesn't have any big plans for her birthday. Trying not to sound like I was rushing her, I asked how Vel Phillips wants to be remembered when she's gone.
"That I was always helping people who had less and needed more than they even dreamed of. That I was able to make a difference in people's lives. Because I certainly had a lot of people who made a difference for me and did good things for me and made me feel special.
"And it started with my mother saying, 'What did you do today that was good?' "
Call Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org