OAKLAND — Once a headstrong redhead, always a headstrong redhead no matter how white the hair, getting her way even at the end.

Oakland native Alma Grigsby, who at age 108 was thought to be the oldest person in the Oakland area, died Monday. And she did it just the way she wanted.

"She got all her wishes. No pain. Passing in her sleep and in her own home," said Cherry Alexander, one of Grigsby's home-care aides for the past few years who was with her in her Lake Merritt apartment when she died. Grigsby did not have children and has no other living relatives — she outlived them all — so her caregivers and friends in the apartment building had become her family.

"If anybody's going to heaven, it's Alma," Alexander said. "She's determined. And she deserves it."

Grigsby would have been 109 on June 15. And although she'd been in declining health, hard of hearing and confined to her bed for the past couple of months, her friends really thought she'd make it.

"She was alert and lucid to the end," said neighbor, friend and frequent helper Lucille Cullom.

Grigsby had a full history. Her father was in the Civil War. Her tenacious disposition propelled her through a frail childhood, and she ran her own business back when women didn't often do that. She lived in three centuries, through earthquakes, wars, social movements and technological transformations. And she was fascinated by them all, always following current events.


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"I don't feel 108," she said in a husky whisper last year at her birthday, sitting in her wheelchair in her sunny apartment building where she'd spent the last four decades after her husband died.

"It doesn't fit my disposition," she said, smiling sweetly. "I blow up every once in a while. When I was young, you see, I had red hair and a temper to match. The temper stayed with me."

Grigsby was honored in 2002 — when she was a mere 106 — by Civil War descendants and history buffs, because only a handful of living Civil War sons and daughters were left in the country. She was presented with a certificate, a medal and a plaque on her father's grave in Evergreen Cemetery.

Her father, Sam Austin, had come to California via Colorado, where he worked a short stint in the silver mines. In Oakland, he bought about 200 acres in what is now the Fruitvale district and opened Austin Real Estate & Insurance on 23rd Avenue.

Little Alma came along in 1896 — one of twins, but her twin died at birth. Alma was a tiny 3 pounds, yet she survived, and her father doted on her, buying her a Shetland pony when she was about 8 to ride to school. She was just 10 when the 1906 earthquake hit.

As a young woman, Grigsby caused her father great distress when she announced she was passing on a chance at Mills College and going to business school instead.

But her business education was vital when her father died suddenly in 1916, and 20-year-old Grigsby took over the family enterprise to support her mother.

That's where she met her husband, Jack Grigsby, a few years later. They were married for 25 years until he died in 1958. She continued to work at the real estate and insurance office for a quarter century or so, and was very active in her church at Park Boulevard Presbyterian.

In recent years, she stayed home except for special occasions when her friends would take her to her favorite restaurant, Merritt Bakery, for a waffle and lots of bacon. "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" were her favorite shows.

Grigsby said last year that there was no great secret to her longevity. "The Lord's been good to me. I'm very grateful and I depend entirely on him," she said.

"I just loved Alma," Alexander said this week. "Sometimes she'd show that little red head through that white hair. Then she'd feel bad that she snapped and hug you and say, 'I'm just a little old lady, don't mind me,' and she was just so sweet."

Services are pending.