'Mama Lu' excited to be honored by hometown

Monday evening, Lula Bell Houston will be honored by her hometown of Cornelius, and she's pretty excited about it. But not as excited as her friend Bill Williams.

"He's more carried away than I am," said Houston, 87. "It's amazing.

"Sometimes I look back and think, how did I do it?"

Houston worked 60 years in the laundry at Davidson College, which was named for her when she retired in 2004. She went right back the next day and worked three more years. (The Lula Bell Houston Laundry is very unusual: For 80 years, it has provided full laundry services to all Davidson College students for free.)

Houston began working in the college laundry in 1943. She first went to work for the college in the cafeteria, but it wasn't long before she was transferred to the laundry.

She left Cornelius a year later to do domestic work in Washington, D.C. Her brother was living in New York City at the time, and she visited and loved it, and worked there, too.

"But in 1948 I was right back at Davidson College," she said. Her mother and daughter lived here.

Except for those five years, Houston has lived in Cornelius all her life. She has four children, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

During the summers, Houston also worked in the campus library, cleaning and shelving books. She also worked for a family in town, sometimes doing all three jobs in one day.

Back then it was very hot in the laundry, she said. "They air-conditioned it since I left out of there," she said. "I loved every day. I loved that job.

"I love people."

She calls having the laundry named after her a "shocking surprise."

Williams calls her his best friend. They met when they were interviewed for a newspaper article about retirement in Cornelius.

Houston acknowledged she was struggling, and Williams wanted to help.

That was two years ago. Williams, who has no relatives in town, takes Houston to church every Sunday. They see each other nearly every day. They've been to Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Bobcats games together.

Houston calls him her guardian angel. Williams says she's made him a softer person.

"She's my best friend," he said. "She is just the sweetest, nicest person there is."

Everybody in Cornelius, he said, seems to know "Mama Lu." She's been called a community hero and an inspiration, Williams said. "She just eats that up."

Likely she'll enjoy her recognition Monday, too.

A proclamation in her honor will be read at the start of the Cornelius town board's 7 p.m. meeting at 21445 Catawba Ave.