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South Jersey icon: Riletta Cream's heart never left Camden

Perhaps best known as the principal who transformed a troubled Camden High School, Riletta Cream also served as a Camden County freeholder - and as a role model for generations of the city's children.

Riletta Cream at her Winslow Township home in 2016, the year she turned 90. The former Camden High principal and Camden County freeholder died Monday.
Riletta Cream at her Winslow Township home in 2016, the year she turned 90. The former Camden High principal and Camden County freeholder died Monday.Read moreAVI STEINHARDT

My favorite memory of  Riletta Cream, the beloved Camden educator and former Camden County freeholder who died Monday at age 91, is from January 1994.

I was covering Mayor Arnold Webster's inaugural ball and wearing a rented tux that didn't fit.

Mrs. Cream was regal — make that sensational — in a gold off-the-shoulder number that effortlessly eclipsed every other fabulous outfit in the crowd of 1,200.

But more than her signature style, what I remember most is the lady's commanding, charismatic, and resonant presence.  The word icon has lost much of its meaning through overuse,  but Riletta Twyne Cream was all that and more:  An elegant, eloquent personification of a once-marginalized community's aspirations and accomplishments.

She lost her mother at 9 years old. Her hard-working dad, a cement mason, raised her and three younger siblings in a rented house at 754 Sycamore St. in South Camden.

Mrs. Cream attended the segregated Whittier Elementary School and, later, what was then Glassboro State College. Her pastor drove her to the entrance exam, and her dad gave her train fare so she could get back and forth to class; during the summers, she worked at the Campbell Soup Co.'s downtown Camden plant, pulling rotting tomatoes from a conveyor.

After graduation, Mrs. Cream taught in local schools, married professional boxer Arnold R. Cream — better known as world heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott —  moved to Pennsauken and, in 1972, was named principal of Camden High School.

Like the city for which it had long been a symbol of pride, the "Castle on the Hill"  had been rocked by racial unrest. But Mrs. Cream steadied the ship and reigned over it for the next 15 years with a distinctive combination of motherly warmth and steely authority.

The click-click-click of her high heels echoing up and down the hallways warned any misbehaving students to immediately shape up. And years later, Camden County Freeholder Jeff  Nash saw evidence of how effective Mrs. Cream had been while the two were campaigning together in the city.

"She and I were going door to door, it may have been in Centerville, and we're approaching a home where a guy in his 30s is on his porch drinking a beer," Nash recalls.

"He immediately tries to hide it, because obviously he had gone to Camden High, and here comes the principal. She said, 'Honey, you don't have to hide your beer.'"

In the late 1980s,  Mrs. Cream endowed a scholarship fund with $4,000 of her own money and $6,000 from the purse she received as a retirement gift. The amount has grown to over six figures in the years since. Scholarships continue to be awarded annually to college-bound high school students.

When she was appointed to fill a vacancy on the freeholder board, and later ran for the office in which she was to serve for 17 years, Mrs. Cream was widely considered to be "Camden's freeholder" — even though she hadn't lived in the city for decades.

But she continued to hold the city close, and Camden loved her back by naming a brand-new elementary school after her in 1991; the Ferry Avenue branch of the Camden County Library likewise was named for her as well.

The last time I saw Mrs. Cream was, fittingly enough, at the high school with which she had long been synonymous. Gov. Christie was there in October 2016 to announce that the state would pony up $133 million to rebuild the facility.

Despite what has continued to be significant opposition to tearing down the landmark school, Mrs. Cream — plain-spoken as ever — told me she supported building a new one in its place.

"Of course I was saddened to think it was going to be torn down, but it has to be, in order to meet the needs of our children. They've got to do it. I'm all for it.

"Things don't stay the same."

They certainly don't.

The city, and the county, wont be the same without her.

R.I.P., Mrs. Cream.