Power Mower

updated 08/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Forget the South Beach diet. Louise Samford has found a novel way to stay trim: launching a one-woman highway-beautification campaign in the middle of one of America's most sprawling cities. Three years ago the retired phone-sales rep, 71, got so fed up with the mess in the medians along Uvalde Road, a busy Houston strip, that she got out her Weedwacker and went to work. "It looked like skid row," she says. "It took me a month just to shovel out all the trash. I lost 20 lbs. in the process."

She got a lot of attention too. The sight of Samford clipping grass and planting flowers amid whizzing traffic initially confused Houstonians. "Someone called the police and said there was a crazy old woman shoveling dirt," she says. "I said to the officer, 'You tell those people this is a courtesy—if they'd do it themselves, this crazy lady wouldn't have to.'"

Cleaning an urban roadway is not for the faint of heart. Despite shooing vagrants from highway underpasses, dodging cars and routinely picking up condoms, Samford persists. "Louise's pride in her neighborhood is unparalleled," says Parks Department spokeswoman Marene Gustin.

And contagious. Early on, Samford spent $1,000 of her savings on supplies; now, local businesses chip in. But while others volunteer to help, "it's easier to do it myself," says the mother of three, who has two great-grandchildren. "I work fast and hard—no time for play." Which might explain why she spends her rare spare moments mowing her own lawn and that of a 92-year-old neighbor. "I look my worst—sweat pours down me in rivers," says Samford. "But I feel 16!"

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