Wide Awake: Miss Riletta Cream
Reaching the end of a wonderful life

Two years ago, I was struggling to choose a quote to place within a photo of Riletta Cream, who was the very first winner of our Lifetime Legacy award. I was concerned the quote I wanted to use might offend people. But I thought it was powerful, so I went with it.

Miss Cream passed away last month after a long, meaningful life. On Facebook, some people posted that photo with the quote inside. It was perfect, and I’m glad we all could find comfort in her words: “I have had a wonderful life – I really have. If I were to leave here today, I wouldn’t complain.”

I hadn’t known Riletta until I read her nomination for our Women of Excellence awards, which described her 15 years as principal of Camden High School (the same school she attended) and her service as a Camden County Freeholder from 1994 to 2011. (When she was Freeholder, she hired a young aide to work in her office – Dana Redd, who went on to become the well-respected mayor of Camden.)

It was easy to see why our judges selected Riletta, but it wasn’t until I met her that I realized how special she was. Each year at our awards ceremony, we show a video of our honorees. I was fortunate to interview Riletta for the video, so I got to hear the many stories of her life. I was excited to present her video that night, because I knew many people in the audience would be meeting her for the first time, and I knew they would love her.

She told me her mother had died when she was 9, and she was raised by her father and the Camden community – the owner of their corner grocery store, her teachers, members of her church. She believed she was a product of everyone she knew growing up, that they loved her and taught her and made her the person she came to be.

She made the audience laugh when she talked about becoming principal at Camden High at a time when there were no female principals. “I said, ‘Don’t you have a man who could do it?’”

But clearly she loved her days in education, because she talked a lot about her students, who she would occasionally run into.

“I see my kids in the street now, and they’re grown. And they say to me, ‘Miss Cream, is that you?’ They can’t believe I’m still here! They can’t believe they see me still walking the street!” She made herself laugh with that. “And they say, ‘Miss Cream, thank you for making us do.’ They’re their words: ‘making us do.’

Riletta believed in hard work. She said that’s what she learned from her father, the grocery store owner and her teachers. Everyone worked long days, and she picked up on that. It was ingrained in her, so she did the same her whole life and passed that work ethic on to her students.

“I believe in work. Many people don’t, they don’t wanna work…In the summer, I worked at Campbell Soup. I worked at RCA Victor. I also worked taking dirty dishes off the table…A lot of people today, they think that’s not the work for them. Well, Miss Cream did it. Going to work makes you an honorable person, because you’re doing something, not only to help yourself, you’re doing something to help someone else.”

Riletta Cream helped people her whole life, even starting scholarships for Camden students at Rowan and Camden County College. She was 91 when she died, and every time I saw her she would smile, grab my hand, and talk with energy and passion about life. I am a better person because I met her and listened to her stories. I’m happy she recognized how wonderful her life was, but I’m so sad it’s over.

Click here to watch Riletta Cream’s video from the Women of Excellence Awards.

January 2018
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