At 82, in good spirits but declining health, Greta Cannon has retired from what became her second career, that of activism in the south Sacramento community where she’s lived since 1959.
She was a driving force behind the 1995 establishment of Meadowview’s crown jewel, the Samuel C. Pannell Meadowview Community Center, and she served for almost two dozen years as a volunteer board member for the Area 4 Agency on Aging.
“I just don’t like to see people left out for some petty reason,” said Cannon, who lives in an apartment at a south Sacramento senior independent living community.
The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors honored her not long ago for her long service to the community, which began with church work when she was the single mother of six and still working for the state.
Now her son, 54-year-old Greg Ratliff, has become an activist of sorts himself.
“I’m following in her footsteps, if you think about it,” said Ratliff, a retired state Department of Transportation senior environmental planner.
As a Master Gardener, Ratliff is organizing an outreach campaign to educate a largely untapped south Sacramento community on horticulture and the environment: What is the consequence of the use of specific pesticides? If someone wants to eat a healthier diet, what are easy fruits and vegetables to plant? How do groups establish their own community gardens to help feed their neighborhoods?
“We’re breaking new ground in the minority community,” Ratliff said.
That was his mother’s specialty as a community activist: breaking new ground and making a difference.
Born in Oklahoma during the Depression, she graduated from high school in San Jose, where her parents had moved to work in the Bay Area shipyards during World War II. Her father told her that to make her way in life, she needed an education. But marriage and divorce and raising her children, four of whom are still alive, came first.
It wasn’t until she was 50 that she finished her education at Cosumnes River College.
“I thought they’d laugh at me being there,” she said, “but they ended up electing me student body president.”
She lobbied for a community center in Meadowview for more than two decades – so long, she likes to say, that “it feels like I gave birth to that center.”
By the time the center at 24th Street and Meadowview Road opened, she was a familiar presence speaking in front of the City Council and county Board of Supervisors on issues such as crime prevention, public safety and education.
She’d already helped establish Meadowview’s first senior nutrition program, at the 24th St. Baptist Church. And starting in her early 60s, she was the chairwoman of the Sacramento County Adult and Aging Commission and served on the governing board of the Area 4 Agency on Aging, which oversees federally funded seniors programs in the Sacramento region.
“It just seems to me that in this country, as much as I love it, people don’t show respect and support for seniors as much as they do in other countries,” she said.
“For this community and now in senior care, my mother has always been this voice saying, ‘Hey! Over here!’” Ratliff said.
Despite her long history of helping the community, Cannon hesitates to talk about her legacy. She’s more concerned with getting her cozy apartment packed up for an upcoming move into assisted living, and with helping her son as he goes about a dialysis routine while he awaits a kidney transplant. Besides, her memory wanders a little.
“To me, the legacy is a question of fairness and doing things right for people,” she finally said. “I guess that’s it, the fairness. I focused on seniors because now I am one.”
Said her son, “I’d say you’re a go-getter. For me, that’s the big thing.”
“I was uplifting for a lot of people,” Cannon said. “And I feel thankful I’m able to do these things. Friends in my age group have passed away, and I’ve had health scares. But I literally thank God every day now when I get up.”