by Marcia Z. Siegal
“When I was born, people said I was so small you could hold me in the palm of your hand. The doctors told my mother I wasn’t going to live very long,” Albert Brealand says. Time has told a different story. Last December, Brealand (“Mr. Al”) marked his 100th birthday with six different celebrations.
He is quick to point out that he’s led a remarkable life in many ways. Of his initial survival, he says, “I thank God and I thank my mother who never gave up on me.” Born prematurely in South Carolina, Brealand was brought to Philadelphia by his mother when he was three days old, after an aunt advised her to seek medical treatment for him here. Soon after, his mother decided to settle permanently in Philadelphia. Brealand says that his mother sought out physicians near and far for health issues throughout his childhood stemming from his premature birth.
Unable to play sports like his peers, he concentrated on other activities. He became an avid reader, making frequent use of the Carnegie Library in his Germantown neighborhood, and reading remains one of his great passions. The building now houses a senior community center, Center in the Park, where Brealand is a member; it was the site of one of his 100th birthday celebrations.
As a young adult, he organized clubs for black youth at a time when racial segregation was a common practice in Philadelphia. “We played baseball at a park in East Germantown, but we were not allowed to use the bathrooms there,” he remembers. “If you wanted to go to the bathroom, you had to go to someone’s house. I formed a club for boys who were 16 to 20 years old so we could have our own activities. They were called the Five Fingers Club. I liked doing things for people. I’m a people man.”
For many years, there were separate YM/YWCAs for blacks and whites in the city. Brealand became an enthusiastic supporter and promoter of the social and recreational activities the black Ys had to offer, earning him the moniker “Mr. YMCA.” He also organized popular dances and fashion shows at the city’s black Ys to raise money for YMCAs in Africa and became a national and international delegate to YMCA conventions.
In another proud achievement, he served as the chairman of the Clara Baldwin Manor, a senior apartment house in North Philadelphia, for more than 30 years.
Over the years, he discovered a talent for dancing. Also known as “Mr. Twinkle Toes,” Brealand served for 28 years as impresario for a Thanksgiving morning dance at the YMCA at Broad and Master Streets in North Philadelphia. These dance fundraisers drew up to 500 people, he remembers. Staff at the event often brought female attendees up to the stage to dance with him. “Some mornings I danced with 20 different women — jitterbug, waltzes, fox trot and two-step,” Brealand says.
“I just stopped dancing last February,” he says. “I was afraid I might fall.”
Still jaunty at 100, Brealand sports a button on his gray tweed jacket saying, “I’ve survived damn near everything!” He’s lived through historic times, he reflects. He vividly recalls the hardships of the Great Depression when he often worked odd jobs. “I remember boys going around without shoes or a coat, and I would take mine off and give it to them,” he says. Later, when times improved, he became a shipping clerk for a Center City printing company, a job he continued for many years.
Brealand looks back with satisfaction on the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the election of the nation’s first black president in 2008. A poster of Barack Obama hangs on his door in the senior apartment building in Germantown where he lives. “I think he’s pretty darn good, but he’s not my favorite president. That has to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt because he’s responsible for Social Security,” Brealand says.
Reflecting on his many years, he adds, “I’ve had a good, long life. If I had to do it again, I would do the same exact things, only twice.”
* Reprinted, with permission, from Milestones, the monthly publication of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.