Hanging tough: A half-hour with Margaret Weedman tends to dispel self-pity
Hanging tough: A half-hour with Margaret Weedman tends to dispel self-pity
Steve Satterwhite

21-Plus & Holding

Never mind her wheelchair, her bruised hip from a recent fall while doing laundry, or the 60-minute trip from her government-subsidized apartment down in Homestead -- 80-odd-year-old Margaret Weedman (she insists on "21-plus and holding") arrives fifteen minutes early for her committee meeting at the Human Services Coalition, 260 NE Seventeenth Terr.

Wearing ribbed, off-white leggings, Velcro sneakers, a pastel-checked shirt, and a hospital-ID bracelet (from a stay at Jackson Memorial Hospital earlier in the week), Weedman comes on slowly -- pushing herself along with one foot while controlling the wheelchair with bony hands.... She creaks down the long hall to the table in the committee room. Oversize plastic-frame glasses dominate her almost translucent face. She balances a large blue bag full of paperwork in her lap.

She painfully hauls herself up to a corner of the conference table, takes a thick, felt-tipped pen from her bulging bag, and begins to highlight the relevant portions of the morning's agenda for the Cross-Disability Transportation Issues Committee, a grassroots organization supported by the Human Services Coalition that was born about a year ago out of the concerns of passengers dissatisfied with the Special Transportation System (STS), the county's shared-ride, door-to-door mobile service for the disabled. Seemingly oblivious to the casual chatter around her, she purses her lips in concentration, carefully annotating the margins of the agenda in a neat, slanted hand.

"Something needs to be done," Weedman remarks, explaining what she sees as flaws in the current system of transporting disabled people. Drivers often don't speak English, ignore repeated requests to turn down their radios, and often are late. "If I want to go to a meeting, I have to sit for an hour and a half to wait for transportation. They may or may not come within the next hour. Then if they finally come, they may keep me onboard for another two and a half hours [while picking up other passengers] And ... then I'm late."

Margaret isn't in charge, nor is she the most vocal participant at this Saturday's transportation committee meeting. Instead she serves as a sort of watchdog, meticulously taking notes and trying to maintain proper parliamentary procedure. When a woman sitting across from her launches into a rambling personal narrative, Weedman speaks up for the first time. "Hush, dear. We need to stick to the agenda," she says firmly, following a strict personal protocol honed over 30 years of participation in Miami-Dade social-service agencies. (Currently she sits on eighteen separate committees.)

Her voice is distinctive and utterly without malice. She articulates quietly, placing equal stress on each syllable, with the faintest, lilting hint of a British accent -- and she only speaks when she has to, later expressing disdain for chatty people who talk out of "self-importance or [because they] love the sound of their own voices." Indeed she is rather reticent during the rest of the three-hour meeting, as fellow committee members (led by Human Services Coalition's Jonathan Fried) collaborate on a sort of wish list for a new transportation contract: It includes a smaller window of time to wait for rides, a more reliable system to log complaints, and a living wage for drivers.

The half-dozen committee members finally disband without any sort of resolution. Weedman is hoping the county will agree to assume a supervisory role in the transportation service, as opposed to letting a brokerage company called Advanced Transportation Solutions (which is made up of five service providers) do its own monitoring. She thinks they're doing an awful job.

"The county has to do what's right here," she says.

But after a recent county commission meeting, the last of the year, Weedman was sorely disappointed. The commission decided not to monitor the contract, saying it would not be able to arrange personnel before the April 26, 2002, date for the transfer of the contract to the new broker. Margaret complains she was not even given the opportunity to make her case. She says she would have described the county's contract for disability transportation in detail, arguing that local government has the legal responsibility to do the monitoring. "It shouldn't have gone like that," she says now. "The chair of the commission [Gwen Margolis] pulled a fast one. She cut me short and then closed [me off.] It was very unfair."

To make matters worse, one of Margaret's wheelchair tires has deflated, so she's feeling besieged. She has to borrow a fresh chair, somewhere.

Despite these frustrations and chronic bad health -- she's a diabetic, and was born with a hole in her heart -- Weedman continues to believe that her brand of quiet, dogged involvement, a kind of Depression-era perseverance and fortitude, can make a difference to those around her: "I'm like an English bulldog," she vows. "I get my teeth into something and I just can't let go. Sometimes I get the feeling I'm the only one [on these committees] to stop and see if people really mean what they say.... When you believe in what you're doing, you've just got to speak up."

It's a philosophy she's followed since she moved to Homestead with her former husband from Groton, Connecticut, in 1971. Soon after settling in Florida, Weedman discovered he was cheating on her, secretly meeting girls at the Homestead Holiday Inn. "I was alone, and it was very painful," she recalls. "I had no family to protect me." Weedman had left her only real family -- the grandmother who had taught her "love of the Bible, the Golden Rule, and Rudyard Kipling's If" -- behind in England when she moved to the States at age twenty.

So left alone, Weedman found herself drawn to local government and an almost endless array of social-service agencies, as "substitutes," in a way. "I think that if I'd been born and educated in this country, as night follows day, I would've gone into law," she says, her soft voice tinged with a touch of regret. "I would've been an honest lawyer and pleaded for good things." Instead she lives in poverty on her Social Security income of $500 per month.

But despite her "English" mildness, Weedman is a tough battler. She is harshly critical of a health care system that does not respect the elderly, makes them wait days for medications they depend on, and -- in her own case --is indifferent to crucial problems, like her wheelchair breakdown.

"Some of what goes on is so bad it makes me sick," she complains.

So Weedman has poured her energy into trying to thwart, or at the very least monitor, the cheating and mismanagement of funds she perceives in social-service agencies and the politicians that surround them. This quality has won her both loyal friends and more than her fair share of enemies. "There are people who would like for me to fall and knock my head and lose my memory," she laughs, only half in jest.

She has collected half a century of stories that run the gamut from poignant to amusing. Adopting the air of an old prizefighter describing the glory days, she talks about agitating before county commissioners and through the Alliance for Aging.

Weedman reserves her toughest criticism for the Community Action Agency (CAA), a Miami-Dade nonprofit group that provides job training and meals for low-income families and elders. Over her tenure as a CAA board member from 1977 to 1988, she accused the agency of wasting state funds by ordering too many hot meals for their lunchrooms, then selling the excess meals for profit on the street ... but to no avail. "It's been long, long years of aggravation. I don't even want to talk about it anymore," she sighs.

When asked about Margaret, CAA's executive director Ophelia Brown laughs and then pauses before speaking. "She's a pain in the neck," she finally blurts out. "She's somebody who likes to critique everything. Every paper -- she checks and rechecks and checks again. Any i that isn't dotted or t that isn't crossed, she's sure to point it out ... again and again."

But Margaret's tireless agitation has resulted in a lasting legacy at CAA's 395 NW First St. home. Her years of campaigning for the building to be made handicap-accessible finally resulted in the installation of an elevator more than a decade ago. And a small plaque on the elevator reads, "Dedicated to Margaret Weedman: CAA Board Member 1977-1988."

"When she sees something she thinks is important, she is persistent," Brown admits.

One issue that was particularly important to Weedman called for better checks on legal guardians for people declared incompetent -- a campaign she credits to a woman called "Mama Dorsey." Margaret, who generally has an encyclopedic knowledge of names, addresses, and telephone numbers, can't remember her real name.

About five years ago, Margaret says Mama Dorsey lived in an apartment upstairs from her in Homestead and fell prey to a guardian who was taking her money and not caring for her properly. Dorsey, who was about 85 years old at the time, grew sicker and sicker, Margaret says.

"One day I went to visit her in the hospital she'd been transferred to, and they told me she had passed away early that morning. It was a real shock." According to Margaret, her friend would not have died had she been appointed an honest, diligent guardian. So she approached the Alliance for Aging and confronted them with what she knew and suspected. As a response the alliance created a task force for guardianship, but Margaret says nothing has really changed.

"That's the way the world is, dear, and that's what I'm against," she says, her quavering voice growing stronger and more vehement. "There's a whole lot of people who are dying. A whole lot of people's homes are being taken from them. That's what makes me so angry, dear.

"People say one voice can't make a difference, but I do believe that the people who know me and have known me for a long time know that what I say is true," she says. She is proud, for example, that a group of blacks asked her help in ousting an unresponsive CAA advisory committee in Naranja as far back as the Seventies, and that she helped establish the Martin Luther King Clinic for farmworkers in the early Eighties in Florida City. And every time Weedman makes an allegation of carelessness, fraud, or mismanagement of funds, she says she has the documentation to prove it -- somewhere in her apartment.

Her apartment has become a literal filing cabinet. It contains 30 years' worth of minutes, agendas, initiatives, and mission statements to provide documentation for her many allegations -- a testament to her years of unyielding involvement in Miami-Dade County politics. She saves the paperwork, with her dutiful underlining and margin notes, for every meeting she has attended since her husband left her.

"A lot of elected officials shudder to think that one day someone might go in there and read that information," jokes John Stokesberry, the former executive director of the Alliance for Aging.

"This resource will be her legacy," observes friend Mike Hatcher, a fellow activist who often drives Margaret home from various committee meetings. "It's a great service she provides to the community."

But it's not without a weighty cost. For years Weedman has spent one-third of her monthly income (roughly $170) maintaining a U-Haul space where she keeps some of her papers and belongings. Just a month ago, she was threatened with eviction because her papers were declared a fire hazard. With her archives endangered, Weedman's friends rallied around her. A fleet from the Alliance for Aging filled 30 boxes with documents and stored them in a backroom at their own small offices on South Dadeland Boulevard -- waiting for Margaret to come and sort through them. Another friend offered her space in his storage facility.

For now, the threat of eviction seems to have been averted.

It was the least anyone could do for their "darling Margaret," says long-time friend Ginger Grossman, who serves with Weedman on the Alliance for Aging's board of directors.

"If anyone is ever feeling sorry for themselves, they should spend half an hour with Margaret and realize how precious life is. She's one feisty, amazing lady," Grossman says, praising Weedman's altruism and unfailing activism. She says she sees Margaret as the last in a sort of dying breed. "We could use many, many more Margaret Weedmans, and they've just thrown away that mold," she says.

"She has always taken up the challenge for the downtrodden, even when it wasn't fashionable. She sees wrongs and just wants to correct them," Hatcher agrees. "She always seems able to empathize and put the needs of others above her own. I've even heard stories of her missing meals to go to meetings.

"She should serve as an admonishment to people who don't take the time to get involved," he concludes.

Talking on the phone after the frustration of yet another inconclusive county commission meeting one recent afternoon, Margaret already was making back-up plans while warming up her lunch of frozen lasagna with meat sauce. (She buys these meals in packs of four, for five dollars apiece.) Perhaps in the end the county will never monitor the STS, but Weedman will continue pushing for a better contract, which is slated to come up for renegotiation in September 2002. As soon as her wheelchair is repaired, she promises, she'll resume traveling again. She'll go from meeting to meeting, armed with her sense of moral imperative, her bag of papers, and the business cards recently donated by a person she'll only describe as a "friend" in Mayor Alex Penelas's office.

"If I've gone through what I've gone through and I'm still breathing, then I think I'm going to live to be 600 years old at least," she says. "I'll be a female Methuselah."


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