Isabel Yates is dressed to the nines in a daffodil-yellow blazer and khakis, every white hair feathered into place, bracelets jangling as she serves coffee on the sun porch of the house in south Lexington where she has lived for decades.
She is a tiny, busy woman who'll celebrate her 90th birthday in October and is a force of nature within the confines of Fayette County. Her South Carolina drawl is clipped by years in the Bluegrass, but chances are if she asks you to do something — because your participation to the wellbeing of this community is very, very important — you're very likely to pitch right in.
Mayor Jim Gray refers to her as "the first lady of all things Lexington."
"People think they're old when they're 60," said Yates, who began her career in Lexington politics by running for a vacant 4th district council seat in 1991, at age 66. "That's nothing."
Three times a week, the former vice mayor rises for an early-morning exercise class at the High Street YMCA. She just helped the Kentucky Theatre raise money for its renovation.
She serves coffee on napkins that say "ASAP: As Southern As Possible." She believes in decorum, education and culture. She never took kindly to vitriol among council members when she was vice mayor. She is all about keeping her eyes on the goal at hand, and she thinks her focus has grown keener as she has gotten older.
"When you're young, you don't know how much you don't know," she said.
Yates grew up in Winnsboro, S.C., the daughter of a doctor who practiced until he was 95 and lived to be 103.
She earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, where she was president of her chapter of Kappa Delta sorority, and a master's degree in English from Ohio State University.
She and her father quoted Shakespeare to each other, and she has nursed a lifelong love of the theater. She bemoans that the classic novels, such as Treasure Island, are no longer routinely taught, and that Latin is no longer widely available in local schools.
She taught at both the college level and as a substitute for Louisville schools. She and her husband, Eugene Wilson Yates, had four children, all of whom have at least two college degrees.
The couple moved the family to Lexington in 1963. Wilson Yates was an executive and attorney with Kentucky Central Life Insurance. He died in 1997 of Alzheimer's disease, and she donated his brain to the University of Kentucky Alzheimer's Disease Center.
She then enrolled herself as one of the center's "healthy brain aging volunteers."
Before going into politics in 1991, Yates volunteered for a raft of Lexington organizations — it would be easier to list those she hasn't served on than those she has — everything from the Tates Creek PTA to Junior Achievement.
Many of the things we take for granted in Lexington either originated with, or were boosted by, Isabel Yates, who is a master of the tools of local diplomacy.
She borrows a quote she said that Mayor Jim Gray often uses: "No matter how thin the pancake, there are always two sides."
Consider the flower baskets that adorn downtown. Yates suggested to then-mayor Scotty Baesler that the baskets be hung. Baesler, she said, dryly responded by asking her to come down and water them each morning. Watering the baskets is now the responsibility of the landscaping division of the city's parks and recreation department.
She also was a leader, along with the Lexington Arts & Cultural Council, in bringing the public art project Horse Mania to Lexington in 2000 and 2010 after hearing about Chicago's Cows on Parade art project.
For a while in the 1990s, she said proudly, she was known as the Stormwater Queen around the fifth-floor council offices at city hall because of her attention to stormwater and runoff issues in her district and her former position as president of the city environmental commission.
Pam Miller, Lexington mayor from 1993 to 2003, remembers urging Yates to run for the council spot in the 4th district, the district Miller served as council member before becoming mayor: "I thought she would be a natural, and sure enough, she was."
Miller said that she and Yates shared a lot of the same interests, including the welfare of the Kentucky Theater, bought by the city in 1989, and the Lexington Children's Museum.
"I called my dad to tell him. I said, 'Dad, I'm going to be a politician,'" Isabel Yates said. "He said, 'I thought you always were one.'"
Yates served on the council from 1991 to 2002, when she retired. From 1998 to 2002, she was vice mayor, a position that goes to the candidate with the highest number of votes in the council at-large race.
"Being on the Urban County Council is really a lot of fun if you want to get things done in the community," said Miller, who is now chairman of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. "It's a perfect platform for organizing volunteers or picking a project and working on it."
One of Yates' most passionate continuing causes has been McConnell Springs, with which she became fascinated by discovering its history as the site of an initial Lexington settlement. In 1993, she mounted a fund-raising campaign to buy the property, which had become an illegal dumping ground littered with roofing material and discarded appliances.
She helped the site get designed and chaired the organization Friends of McConnell Springs when it was new in 1994. Twenty years later, she is honorary chairman of the McConnell Springs: 20 Years of Excellence dinner to be held Sept. 26 at the Hilary J. Boone Center.
When Yates announced her retirement from the council in December 2011, supporters waved blue, orange and gold paper flags decorated with the names of the organizations Isabel Yates has served, including the Children's Museum, United Way and Lexington Philharmonic.
In 2001, at-large council member David Stevens, who also has since retired from the council, called her a "steel magnolia," adding: "She listens more than she talks, which is not true of most people."
Yates considers the decades she spent in volunteer work both before and after her council stint a boon to her performance.
"The key to volunteer work is to get along well with lots of kinds of people," Miller said. "That's Isabel. She's charming and she's able to get people to do things."
The current mayor, Jim Gray, describes Yates as "relentless in a very persuasive and nonthreatening way."
Yates has a motto: "Be proud of the place you live, and live so the place you live will be proud of you."
How would she describe her experiences in Lexington? "I've had so many opportunities to do things. It's been wonderful for me."