The Harlem Women's Club recently honored the city's oldest native.
The club named Mary E. Sanders, 97, as the 2008 Citizen of the Year.
"I can truly say it is an honor to know you," club President Robin Root told Sanders at the ceremony Thursday.
The award honors an outstanding citizen and his or her contributions to the Harlem community.
Sanders spent most of her life educating children, starting in 1932 as a teacher in a one-room McDuffie County schoolhouse. Sanders was hired by Columbia County School Superintendent John Pierce Blanchard to teach at the Pollard Academy school in 1954. She was named the school's principal in 1958.
Thankful for the educational support of Columbia County, Sanders said one thought guided her in her 56-year career.
"The ... thing I had in my mind when I was working with children who were maturing is that one day, these children are going to be adults and they will be taking my place," she said. "And I want them to do a better job for humanity than I have done. That was always in my mind."
Sanders said it is very satisfying to see her former pupils as responsible adults making their own contributions to society.
But it wasn't only the lives of children that Sanders touched during her career.
"She's highly professional, and if you worked with her, you got to be that way, too," said Cuarta Weaver, Sanders' friend and former colleague. "So I really felt professional because I worked with Miss Sanders. ... If you worked with her and you did as she asked you to do, you grew, too. You were improved."
Sanders also served 17 years as principal of North Harlem Elementary School, where the library was named in her honor after she retired in 1988.
Because of her contributions to education, Harlem city officials dedicated a recently constructed Head Start/Columbia County Community Connections building in the Harlem City Park as the Mary E. Sanders Community Center in April.
Mayor Bobby Culpepper said he remembers Sanders as a customer at his father's car dealership, where he pumped gas as a boy. He said his father's respect for her was obvious.
"From the city's standpoint, I would have to say -- paraphrasing my father -- that I think the city recognizes you in the most highest esteem," he said. "We are so thrilled that we were able to dedicate the building in your honor and you received this award. You are very deserving."
Retirement didn't keep Sanders from becoming involved with education. In 1992 she ran for a seat on the school board, becoming the first black elected official in Columbia County since Reconstruction.
Sanders continues to influence those around her by being active in New Holt Baptist Church, where she is a longtime member. The Rev. Melvin Adams, who has led the church for 15 years, said he feels blessed to be her pastor.
"Sister Sanders is a jewel," Adams said. "I want you to know it has been a delight. It has been a treat."
Longtime friend and colleague Doris Belcher said Sanders continues to do many good things for many people.
"Look how many lives she's touched," Belcher said. "And they are touching lives. So this legacy is going to go on and on and never die."
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