At first blush, it’s impossible not to notice Ernestine Cox’s signature, all-embracing smile that illuminates a room. But attention quickly moves to her vibrant eyes, brimming with nine decades of an extraordinary life and its cascade of memories.
Cox turns 90 on January 30 and AARP Michigan is fortunate that she has been an active volunteer the last 40 of those years, enriching lives and her Detroit community.
Her amazing story, though, encompasses so much more.
Tough but compassionate gun-toting court officer, mom to two daughters, world traveler, chorale singer, expert seamstress, octogenarian zip-liner, integration trailblazer, theater usher in her spare time, niece to one of Detroit’s most celebrated figures... and that only touches on a handful of the highlights.
“I have enjoyed my 90 years. The Lord has truly, truly blessed me,” Cox said. “I don’t know anybody who has done the things I’ve done, working for people, working to help people, and gone so many places and done so many things that have made me so happy.”
She has done her part to make fellow Detroiters happy through her work helping out regularly at the AARP Information Center, collecting canned goods for the hungry, pitching in at Grandparents Day and shred events to protect against identity theft, registering countless attendees at caregiving, fraud prevention, health care and other workshops.
“Being a volunteer at AARP taught me to help people, to be a more decent, much nicer person,” Cox said. “It is rewarding work and I’ve met so many wonderful people.”
Brenda Price, Associate State Director of AARP Michigan in Detroit, said she was stunned to learn soon after she met the very engaged Cox that she was “the most mature AARP volunteer in the state.
“She is a model for us all,” Price said.
Lisa Whitmore Davis, Director of Senior Services for Wayne County who worked with Cox for more than nine years at AARP Michigan, commented: “Ernestine Cox is the embodiment of commitment and volunteer service. During the years I was blessed to work with Ernestine, she passionately embraced new challenges, and her heart of service for all aspects of our diverse community inspired others.”
Andrea Palmer, Volunteer Coordinator for AARP Michigan, remarked: "I love Ernestine. She's a beautiful soul."
I have enjoyed my 90 years. The Lord has truly, truly blessed me. I don’t know anybody who has done the things I’ve done, working for people, working to help people, and gone so many places and done so many things that have made me so happy.
Cox was drawn to the volunteer work four decades ago by the opportunity to engage in her favorite pastime — travel. AARP afforded her the chance to join excursions across the country in her early years with the organization, and introduced her to an avocation that would last a lifetime.
She recounts with delight her travel around the globe, including five trips each to Africa and China, Spain, South America, Cuba, Italy, Switzerland, Japan. She saw the Pope in Rome, visited the prison where Nelson Mandela was locked up in South Africa, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., saw Eva Peron in her casket in Argentina, viewed the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and walked the Great Wall of China. Many of the trips included thrilling activities with a bit of risk involved: white-water rafting, hot-air ballooning, water skiing, kayaking, hiking in Machu Picchu, waterfall climbing in Jamaica, having her picture taken with a boa constrictor around her neck in Africa.
Get this: She did a two-hour zip-lining course in a Costa Rican rain forest at age 80.
“At the first tree, I closed my eyes real tight and said ‘Lord, I know you take care of fools and babies… and you know I ain’t no baby,” Cox chuckled. “I loved that trip.
“I have the daredevil in me. It started at age 12 when I rode on a motorcycle. No turning back after that.”
Cox said her love of adventure and her independent streak arise from childhood when her mom exhorted her every day to come straight home after school.
“I swore that when I became an adult I would never stay home,” she said.
She was one of a family of eight children raised in a home in Black Bottom Neighborhood on Detroit’s Near East Side.
She remembers the times as a child she would dance in the streets with neighbors in celebration of each boxing title bout won by her uncle – heavyweight champion prizefighter Joe Louis, one of the greatest boxers of all time.
“We were so poor, nobody believed I was related to Joe Louis,” she said
Cox lived with Uncle Joe, her mother’s brother, in Chicago the summer she was five. She made it to three of his fights. She joined her family at the unveiling of a sculpture honoring Louis in Detroit’s Hart Plaza.
“We were all surprised. Nobody knew it was going to be a giant fist,” she said. “I was bewildered. But I like it now. I have gotten used to it.”
The native Detroiter attended Miller High School and later Lewis College of Business in the city. After a few short-lived jobs she started a career at Wayne County Juvenile Court where she stayed for 50 years, the last 25 as the court officer.
She carried a .45 caliber handgun that she bought from friend Gilbert Hill, former head of the Detroit Police Homicide Division, President of the Detroit City Council and actor in the Beverly Hills Cop movies. But she never had to draw it.
“The judge let me maintain order in the court,” Cox said. “The lawyers called me ‘Mean ‘Stine’ because I talked tough to these kids. They were 6 foot tall, they would try to take advantage of you if they could outtalk you, but I put my bluff in. Truth was I was always scared, but I couldn’t let anyone see that.”
Truth was, said Margaret Chandler, a fellow juvenile court officer, Cox was good at her job because she brought compassion to work every day.
“She had to keep order, but she was passionate about those kids,” said Chandler, who counts Cox as a close friend “who would do anything for you. She’s a good person.”
Not everything has been a dream. No way has a Black woman lived in Detroit for 90 years without facing racism and bigotry. Cox said she prefers not to dwell on those episodes, but she commented on the time when she moved into her current neighborhood in the 1960’s. She was one of the first African Americans to move to her community and was harassed by white neighbors who did not want Blacks living on the block.
“I saw prejudice close up,” she said. “It was a different time, a difficult time. Now Black people can move into every area. But I would like to see more opportunities for Black people.”
She recalls an early job where white co-workers treated her like the help.
“They talked down to me,” she said. “I knew I had to get out of there.”
The pandemic has also been a rough time for Cox, as it has for so many others. She has been a member of eleven choirs and has retired from all of them over time. She retired from the last one when the coronavirus invaded Michigan. Staying safe at home and entertainment industry lockdowns have meant she had to give up ushering at the theaters around Detroit, which she enjoys because it enables her to see big shows for free.
If there is anyone whose lifestyle is cramped by the viral outbreak, it’s Ernestine Cox.
“You know what? I don’t like to sit still,” she said. “Never have.”