Evelyn Thurman Gratts is not known as "Mrs. Belmont" in the halls of Belmont High School for nothing.
And with a campaign to name a new elementary school in her Echo Park neighborhood after her, residents and friends are hoping she gets the recognition she deserves.
"She is the ultimate volunteer, she is an incredible person," said former Mayor Tom Bradley, who once lived in Echo Park and has been friends with Gratts for decades. "Whether it comes to the schools or the City Council--she just can't give enough,"
The Echo Park Coordinating Council is leading the effort to name Belmont Elementary School No. 5, at 3rd and Lucas streets, after Gratts.
"This is the right way to honor a woman who has worked so much for the schools," council member Jacques Chambers said.
The council is encouraging those who support the proposal to send letters to the school district.
From bringing Head Start to the school district to organizing a parent group to ward off gang fights on campus to lobbying for a school swimming program to consistently speaking out at school board meetings, Gratts has spent most of her 87 years fighting for one cause or another in the halls of Union Elementary, Virgil Junior High and Belmont High schools.
"I've always been an organizer. I used to organize the kids for marble games and softball games when I was growing up," Gratts said.
She attributes her civic dedication to her family roots, which run deep in the community. Gratts was baptized in Echo Park Lake after her grandparents settled in the area in 1885.
Her parents and grandparents, all of whom worked to improve their neighborhood, laid the path for her, she said.
With her keen intellect, she could have become "a high-powered attorney," said Ignacio Garcia, Belmont High's assistant vice principal. Instead, after graduating from Belmont High in the 1920s, Gratts became a volunteer advocate for local children. And many are grateful she did.
"I can't think of an issue she hasn't been involved in. She has made this community a better place to live in so many ways," said Maryanne Hayashi, executive director of Central City Action, a youth recreation group.
But at least once, her enthusiasm got her into a little hot water with her own children.
During a Belmont High track meet one year, Gratts, a trained masseuse, was called down from the stands to assist an injured runner from the opposing team. He ended up nosing out her son at the finish line.
But her children, who respectfully answer Gratts with "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am," don't bear a grudge.
"I've always felt my mother was my best friend," said her daughter, Tommie Mallet. "Not only do I love her, I like her."
Indeed, the whole family has adopted the local schools. There have been few years since the Belmont schools opened in the 1920s that at least one of Gratts' family members, one of her four brothers, four children, 13 grandchildren or 19 great-grandchildren, have not been enrolled.
When Gratts strolls through the school halls, few of the teen-age students can believe she is an octogenarian and, with a twinkle in her amber eyes, she often dares her many admirers, "Guess how old I am?"
Gratts' activism doesn't stop outside the school doorsteps. She is a senior representative to the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, and despite recently recovering from heart surgery, Gratts was busily taking calls and issuing orders to prepare for the Westlake Hills Senior Citizen's 20th anniversary Christmas lunch. She is the president and founder of the group.
The school board will decide on a name for the Belmont Elementary No. 5 in the next few months.
The Echo Park Coordinating Council is encouraging those who support naming the school the "Evelyn Thurman Gratts Elementary School" to write letters to Sid Thompson, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, 450 N. Grand Ave., Room 223, Los Angeles, Calif. 90012.