Geraldine Young knows tragedy.
There was the moment the National Football League officials showed up at her doorstep more than two decades ago, with the news that her husband, Baltimore Colts great Claude "Buddy" Young, abruptly died in a car crash.
Eight years earlier, their eldest son, Claude Young III, died of leukemia. Her daughter, Paula, would die of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1997. That same year, son Jeffrey died of a brain aneurysm, and in 1999, her last son, Zollie, died of a heart attack.
A widow, Young was left virtually alone, save two grandchildren in Rockville.
And yet the 80-year-old Roland Park woman with a genteel manner has more than persevered, building a reputation as a tireless advocate and volunteer who has dedicated 20 years to the YMCA and Meals on Wheels. She is being honored for her service as the United Way Volunteer of the Year.
"She's got a spirit that just won't quit," said Chris Ader Soto, vice president of child care, family services and community development at the YMCA of Central Maryland. "She's had a lot of personal tragedy in her life, and this woman has more positive energy and vibes that come from her than just about anybody I know. She doesn't let herself be pulled down by tragedy and frustration. She comes back stronger."
Young's pet project is her namesake, the Geraldine Young Family Life Center, next to the Druid Hill Family YMCA. She led a fundraising effort for the center, which operates 12 apartments as transitional housing for homeless women and children.
She has served on the corporate board of the YMCA of Central Maryland and has led numerous committees. When she stepped down from the board last year, she was anointed a lifetime member.
And though Young is no longer on the Druid Hill Family YMCA board, she routinely pops in on meetings, remaining as involved as ever. She is even more in touch with the women at the family center, whom she advises and disciplines, encourages and lectures, when needed.
"She gives them their motherly love," said Tony Coffield, executive director at the Druid Hill Family YMCA. "But she will tell them when they made a poor decision in a way they appreciate. Only Ms. Geraldine can do it."
Young is a woman who thrives at living. "She smokes, she drinks, she parties, and she's very involved and knows a lot of people in town," said granddaughter Dawne Young, 38, of Rockville. "She hasn't slowed down a bit, whether it's throwing some sort of charity event or some sort of social event.
"I think she just loves life and loves people. And people love her."
It's a Monday morning, and Geraldine Young sits at the restaurant at the Radisson Hotel at Cross Keys in Roland Park like the regular she is. The waitress knows her, a former housing commissioner walking by says hello, and the wife of a former judge gives her a hug.
Stylishly dressed, with a pink manicure and tastefully done makeup, she looks every bit of the Baltimore socialite she is, with an appearance well shy of her 80 years.
She talks about trying to get back into shape, with her workouts of treadmill walking, leg extensions and a new ab machine that's being put together by her son-in-law. "Certainly it won't be like when I was 50," she says of the days when she walked at least 5 miles a day. "But yesterday after church, I had a pretty good workout. I got to get back in shape."
She sips coffee and harks back to the days of her youth, growing up on the South Side of Chicago as the youngest of nine children, an era when segregation persisted in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
She met Buddy when they were teenagers, sitting alongside each other in school. He courted her on the steps of her house, taking her to a cowboy movie on their first date. "It was a while before he could come inside," she recalls.
They graduated in 1944 and went to the University of Illinois. Neither graduated.
Buddy was drafted into the military, where he served for several years, and then was recruited to play for the New York Yankees, a team in the now-defunct All America Football Conference. Before that, they married and had their first child.
In 1953, the couple and their young children came to Baltimore after Young moved to the Colts.
Young recalls their years in Baltimore as among their best. They raised their children in Reservoir Hill, where her sons grew up at the Druid Hill YMCA.
Buddy Young played for the Colts for only several years, but he remained involved - becoming a executive with the team and eventually an assistant to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
He paved the way for African-Americans in league management. "He really made a greater mark in the business after he retired" as a player, said Young. "Buddy played a major role in getting Negroes recognized and accepted for their worth."
Her husband, she recalled, served on civil rights commissions, got the first African-American college bands to play at NFL games and brought Colts ticket outlets to the black neighborhoods of West Baltimore.
"We rubbed elbows with all kinds of folk," she added. "Buddy was on so many boards, he raised money for all kind of causes. It was a wonderful life."
Young remembers being asked how she felt "living in the shadow" of her husband, a question she found absurd.
"I never lived a day of my life as Mrs. Buddy Young," she said. "I was always Geraldine. I was such an integral part of his life. We worked as a team."
In 1967, the couple moved to Westchester, N.Y., where they remained until his death in 1983.
Buddy Young was driving to the airport from the memorial service of a Kansas City Chiefs player when he fell asleep at the wheel.
She remembers the day vividly, from the white shorts and shirt she had on, soiled from working in the yard, to her dog's wild response to the NFL officials that came to the door.
She accepted his death the same way she has come to accept all the deaths in her life. "Buddy and I had no unfinished plans," she said. "There's nothing I didn't say to him. I had no guilt. I generally live knowing that tomorrow is not promised. I did the same thing with the kids."
In June 1984, Geraldine Young decided to return to Baltimore.
Here she has remained, becoming an integral part of the YMCA and Meals on Wheels, where she continues to deliver meals to the homebound. At the YMCA, Young has worn just about every hat. Her forte is raising money, a task for which she is well suited - urging her fellow board members to step up and donate, speaking before state lawmakers for funds and hitting up her own friends. "I beg," she said, laughing. "I'm a real beggar. I beg every place."
The YMCA's Soto said Young is a force at meetings, never one to mince words.
"She calls it like she sees it," said Soto. "She has no qualms about standing up and challenging other board members to live up to their commitments. She'll say, 'We're not here to enjoy lunch. We're here to make a difference in our community.' We can always count on her to do that kind of rallying call and challenge."
Even on her 80th birthday last December, Young didn't miss a beat.
It was a grand affair, she recalled, and dressed in a champagne lace gown, she shepherded more than 100 guests into Forum Caterers in Northwest Baltimore. "Your presence is my present," she recalls telling her guests. "But really, I'm lying."
The YMCA family center, her namesake, was suffering a budget shortfall, she told them. Instead of gifts, she said, could her guests help make up the shortfall?
Several hours later, Young had collected $8,700. "Right there at the party," she says. "I didn't turn any amount down. It was great."