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Oldest, youngest delegates are 80 years apart

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 5 2012 2:35 p.m. MDT

The youngest delegate Sam Gray, 17, from Marion, Iowa, meets the oldest delegate Elzena Johnson, 97, from Terry, Miss., at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The oldest and youngest delegates to the Democratic National Convention were born 80 years apart, but they say the thrill of participating in the political process is timeless.

Sam Gray of Marion, Iowa, who turns 18 next month, said he hasn't had much time to do the homework the teachers at his high school assigned to him. But he's getting quite an education by coming to Charlotte as one of 5,556 delegates.

"It's amazing to have this opportunity," said Gray. "It's really cool to be able to experience this."

On the other side of life, there's Elzena Johnson of Terry, Miss., who turns 98 on Sept. 25. She's participating in her first convention after a lifetime of being a mother, a champion swimmer in the senior Olympics into her 80s, a Terry board alderman, and most importantly, a loyal Democrat. She recalls getting active for the party as a teenager.

"We are Democrats, and we wouldn't miss Charlotte," Johnson said.

One of her earliest political memories as a child is of her parents voting after having paid a $4 poll tax. Johnson was first eligible to vote for president in 1936, casting a ballot for Franklin Roosevelt.

Gray's political memories are much more recent — family members discussing a 2000 debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush, and wanting to learn more. "I didn't know what they were talking about but I wanted to participate," he said. Today, he said, "I'm starting the conversation."

Gray serves on the student Senate and plays on the golf team at his high school in Marion, a city of 35,000 near Cedar Rapids. Gray's parents aren't party activists, although one uncle was once a small-town mayor and another served in Democrat Jimmy Carter's administration in transportation.

Delegates must be 18 years old on Election Day to qualify as a delegate.

"He's always surprising us," said his mother, Joann. "He's very talented and we're just glad to see him use his talents."

When other teenagers are thinking about cars and dates, Gray is thinking about the future — he wants to be either an attorney or a financial adviser. He also is concerned about education, financial aid and the economy, topics he hopes the president will touch upon when he delivers his Thursday night acceptance speech.

Johnson is wrapping up her final term after being elected to the Board of Aldermen in 2000 in Terry, a small town of just over 1,000 about 15 miles from Jackson. She said she's excited about hearing Barack Obama and wants to energize his supporters for the campaign's stretch run.

"I just want to let him to tell us what's on his mind and what is happening this year," she said.

Johnson, who uses a walker, is getting around the convention in a wheelchair with the help of her daughter. But she still works at the polls on Election Day and writes a column in the local paper. With six grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild, Johnson hopes an Obama victory to a second term will extend the Democratic legacy to future generations.

"I think the Democratic Party is finally ready to get on the ball now," she said.

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