Paulsboro High School teacher Ada Rosen wanted to promote unity and racial harmony at a time when the country was bitterly divided among racial lines.
She helped launch a movement that started in 1957 with a Brotherhood Award presented to a senior. It remains a source of pride in the blue-collar Gloucester County town, which celebrated the award’s 65th anniversary Friday.
More than six decades after the award’s founding, today’s nominees must have the same positive traits as their predecessors: regard for people of all religions, races, and national origins. The program looks for young people active in student affairs with a focus on the just treatment of others.
Hundreds of people packed into the high school auditorium for an assembly-turned-pep-rally to commemorate the anniversary milestone Friday. Rosen, 97, was applauded and presented with a red-and-white corsage and an etched award.
”We’ve kept this tradition going,” said principal Paul Morina. “It’s something to be proud of.”
When schools were closed during the pandemic, the award was presented virtually. Last year, the ceremony was held on the athletic field and guests were limited.
Rosen, an English teacher, came up with the idea for the award after she was tapped to serve on the town’s civil rights committee. She was the only teacher on the committee and brought the plan to the high school.
”All of a sudden time flies by and it’s 65 years, unbelievable,“ said Rosen, of Cherry Hill, a widow and mother of three daughters.
Rosen said she was inspired to create the award after meeting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he gave a talk in Delaware during his early days as a student at Crozer Theological Seminary. She was also influenced by the work of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
Back then, her message to students was simple: “to always help each other regardless of differences,” a theme she believes still resonates today. She retired in 1991 after a 40-year career but comes back regularly for the award presentation.
The award has become a coveted honor among seniors, said Christine O’Malley, a school adviser. A committee with more than 60 members selected five nominees, males and females. Juniors and seniors select the winner.
”They strive to get nominated,” said O’Malley, who took over the award when Rosen retired. “They leave us better people.”
The five nominees sat anxiously on the stage, awaiting the announcement of the winner. Blocks in the school’s colors of red and white spelled out goals for students: being responsible, kind, respectful, helpful, and reliable.
The auditorium rang out with applause when Brandon Armstrong, 18, was announced the winner. An athlete who plays three sports, he plans to major in sports management at Rowan University.
Teacher Donna Backus said Armstrong “symbolizes what brotherhood is all about.”
”I just believe in doing the right thing and how I can impact others,” Armstrong said. “It’s easy to be nice.”
The other finalists were Zoey Cooper, Jillian Roscetti, Dennis Townsend, and Hunter Zubec.
Residents say celebrating the Brotherhood Award brings the economically depressed community together to celebrate strength in its diversity. The borough is 49% white, 41% Black, and 8% Hispanic.
Once a thriving refinery town with a bustling port on the Delaware River, the community of about 6,200 has fallen on harder times in recent years. It got a boost recently when it landed a contract for a facility to assemble parts of wind turbines to be installed off the New Jersey coast.
Because this was a milestone year for the award, O’Malley invited previous recipients to attend. One was James Blasetto, 67, a retired cardiologist from Chadds Ford, who was honored in 1973. ”It a meant a lot to me. I was so proud and so thankful,” Blasetto recalled.
Another former recipient, Terry Green Owens, 65, of Albany, N.Y., a minority women’s business leader, returned to the high school Friday for the first time since graduating in 1975. She hopes students will see the previous honorees as examples of “what can be achieved.”
At a reception later in the school’s library, principal Morina presented Rosen with an honorary Paulsboro High diploma.
”It’s about time I got a diploma,” Rosen said. “Now I can go out and get a job.”