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Sunday, July 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:44 AM

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"Mom" to hundreds, a "giant among mortals"

Seattle Times reporter

When his own mother could not be there, Alvirita Little stepped in.

She advised Alex Coleman to marry the woman he was dating. She helped brighten the ceremony up with flowers. And she stood there, by the altar, as the young man said his vows.

"She was a giant, I would say, among mortals," said Coleman, now 65, one of the many students Mrs. Little mentored through the years.

Mrs. Little, 93, died June 24 of complications of Alzheimer's disease. For the past six years, she had lived in an assisted-living facility at Wesley Homes in Des Moines.

Mrs. Little welcomed everyone she could into her world, from the hundreds of foreign students she hosted at home to the teenage girls she helped by founding the Girls Club of Puget Sound. In the last years of her life, she greeted the nurses who cared for her with a hug.

She was known to hundreds of people across the world as "Mom." But the Rev. David Assen, her friend of more than 40 years and pastor at Bryn Mawr United Methodist Church, had a different name for the finely styled woman with a smile.

"I called her the Queen," he said.

Mrs. Little was born on a farm in the small town of Spring, Texas, the seventh of eight children. Her parents worked four acres of fruit trees and peanut fields deeded to her grandfather after emancipation from slavery.

Mrs. Little's father died early, and her mother supported the family by selling fruit and homemade pies at a roadside stand. Mrs. Little got as much education as she could at the only black school in town.

She married at 15, went to work in a sawmill, gave birth to five children and threw herself into church activities. After a divorce, Mrs. Little and her children moved away from the small town.

She was working in a beauty shop in Houston when the man who would become her second husband spotted her through the window. A former boxer, Sgt. Frank Little walked into the salon for a manicure, just to get a better look at her.

Mrs. Little and her two daughters sailed to Japan in 1947 to join Mr. Little, who was stationed there during the occupation. Mrs. Little made her own mark, establishing orphanages and other needed services for Japanese youth, with funds from United Methodist Churches back home.

The military discouraged "fraternization" with the Japanese. But Mrs. Little went ahead with her work anyway.

"If she gets her dander up about something, oh boy," said Lem Howell, a friend of many years. "Don't step in her way."

The family moved to Seattle, where Sgt. Little was stationed, in 1951. In a largely segregated city, Mrs. Little found her toughness tested. The first time she walked into a church with her family, some white congregants stood to leave. And when Mrs. Little once asked about purchasing a house, the owner said she did not sell to black people.

"My mother put on her best smile and said, 'I guess that's your problem,' " said her daughter Vivian Lee of Kent. "And walked away with her head held high."

At the VA Medical Center, where Mrs. Little worked for nearly 20 years, she pushed hard for diversity in the staff ranks. At one point, she insisted that Lee, a recent graduate of the UW nursing school, apply for a job at the center.

She did, and became the first black R.N. to work there.

Friends noted that all of Mrs. Little's children have risen to prominence — whether in health care, law or the military.

"We're successful in life because of her initiative and drive," said Alvin Little of Kent, a retired Army special forces officer and businessman.

In 1969, a group of mothers approached Mrs. Little with a problem. Activities and clubs were closed to their daughters. The teen pregnancy rate was high. And the mothers themselves, working two jobs at a time, could not supervise their girls.

Mrs. Little rallied supporters of her United Methodist Church for funding to start the Girls Club of Puget Sound in a rented building on what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Today, the Alvirita Little Center has a teen center, classrooms and a play area. Programs range from substance-abuse prevention to pregnancy prevention. A mural of Mrs. Little and a group of girls is painted on the gymnasium walls.

"She provided some great leadership here in this community without an enormous amount of notice," said former Gov. Dan Evans. "She just went ahead and did things."

And through the years, Mrs. Little opened her home to more than 200 University of Washington students from more than 46 different countries. As a host family for the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students, which she helped establish, she introduced the students to everything from the city's transportation system to how to find housing.

At her 90th birthday, former students came from across the world to see her. Mrs. Little had developed Alzheimer's by then. Her son Harold Booker read aloud the story of her life, from her birth in a small town to her winning a multitude of awards.

Even as she struggled with dementia, Mrs. Little still shone at Wesley Homes in recent years — the elegant woman in the colorful dress, an artificial flower in her hair, which was pinned up in a bun.

"She didn't walk into a room," said one nurse, Virginia Tanuma, 45. "She made her entrance."

Mrs. Little could not always follow a conversation by then, so she took her cues from someone's smile. As soon as she saw it, she gave them a smile of her own.

Ms. Little is survived by four children: Arthur Booker of Federal Way; Harold Booker of Seattle; Alvin Little and Vivian Lee. She was preceded in death by her husband and a daughter, Verna Lee Booker Hightower.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Aug. 5 at The University Temple United Methodist Church, 1415 N.E. 43rd Street, Seattle, WA 98105. Free parking is available on the University of Washington campus in lot N-1, by the Burke Museum.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Mrs. Little's memory to Therapeutic Health Services, 1116 Summit Avenue, Seattle, WA 98101.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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