Family, friends praise Twitty at his 90th birthday celebration

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By Johnathan Ryan

To Gonze Lee Twitty, age is simply a number, not a state of mind.

To this day, he still talks about his ability to work like someone much younger than himself on his Pleasant Hill farm. Twitty takes pride in his vitality.

"He thinks he's still 50," said daughter Odessa White at a birthday celebration held in his honor Saturday at the Lancaster County Community Center.

The crowd of a couple hundred people laughed.

It was easy to tell who was the man of honor in the crowd.

Twitty, who turned 90 on June 26, was dressed in a black tuxedo and all attendees were dressed in white.

Family and friends got the chance to say a few words about Twitty, who sat at the head table with his wife, children and those presiding over the program, which included gospel music, Scripture and prayers.

Twitty made a name for himself as an active and loyal Democrat, organizing on the local level, chairing precincts and later being the first black to serve on the party's state executive committee. In the late 1960s, he co-founded land cooperatives aimed at helping poor farmers pool resources and obtain low-interest loans to purchase land.

In 1991, he was inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame and attends the organization's annual banquet each year in Washington, D.C. He still sits on the board of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund.

"We all stand on the shoulders on Mr. Twitty – those of us in the community trying to lead," said Lancaster County school board chairwoman Charlene McGriff.

Lancaster County Councilman Fred Thomas, the Democratic nominee for the District 45 state House seat, said Twitty's life is inspirational, as he overcame the great odds he faced as a black man in the turbulent times before racial barriers fell in the South.

"He was dealt a hand that probably wasn't so good, but he played it masterfully," Thomas said.

Former Lancaster City Councilwoman Linda Blackmon-Brace remembered the recent phone call she received from Twitty – at 2:30 a.m., just after he had arrived back from Washington and was on a tight schedule to get to his next engagement.

Blackmon-Brace was surprised by his eagerness to get to Columbia for the important state Democratic meeting later that day.

"'Meet me at Small's (Grocery in Pleasant Hill). He said, "We're going to the meeting,'" she said.

The audience laughed.

Blackmon-Brace said Twitty's been alive for 32,680 days.

"That is a blessing," she said.

The Rev. Otis Lathan of Pleasant Grove AME Zion Church offered prayers for Twitty's continued health and acknowledged what Twitty's wife, Margaret, has contributed to his life.

"She added years to his life and life to his years," he said.

Twitty's daughter, Ella Mae Marks, was gracious to the crowd.

"You all are family to us," she said.

The honoree was also gracious to those who came to his party.

"I'm pleased each one of you all are here," Twitty said.

Contact reporter Johnathan Ryan at jryan@thelancasternews.com or (803) 416-8416