Nearly three decades ago, "Tish" Colombi, a Haddonfield stay-at-home mom, community volunteer, and political neophyte, confided in then-and-now Borough Solicitor Mario Iavicoli that she was contemplating a run for town office. But she had concerns.
"I said, 'How can I do this? Nobody knows me,' " Colombi recently recalled.
The counselor's advice: Go door to door.
So Colombi spread out a map on her dining room table.
"It took about six weeks, but I walked the whole town. Forty-six hundred households," she said. "I learned about my town."
Now, as the borough prepares for another election Tuesday, there's nary a household in Haddonfield that doesn't know or at least know of Letitia Colombi.
But this time, she's not running.
At noon May 22, Colombi, 68, will end 28 years of public service as a commissioner of her beloved adopted hometown, including the last 12 as mayor.
"It's been a great ride," said Colombi, flashing that smile so familiar in this tony and tradition-respectful borough.
The last several weeks have been a blur of fetes, proclamations, and testimonials for this former Lone Star State gal, as well-known for her personal touch style of leadership as for her zesty wearing of the color red.
The program for her retirement dinner last month was crammed with kudos from everywhere, from the Tavistock Country Club, to local businesses, civic groups, and many residents offering their thanks.
A mother of five and grandmother of eight, Colombi treated the part-time post of mayor as a full-time job. On Wednesday, she was at Borough Hall, as she has been every week for 28 years, holding one of the open-house sessions she started so residents could find an open ear.
"My job is to communicate with people," said Colombi, reflecting on her years in office. "I think for men, it's more of a power trip. I've always felt more motherly about it. I have take care of my kids."
Being the first - and only - woman commissioner and mayor in a town famously founded by a woman named Elizabeth Haddon is something she has been ever mindful of:
"I'm certainly proud of the role model I present to young women. It's very important that this is normal to them. I don't want it to be unusual."
Over the years, Colombi has made a point of recognizing local women and being supportive of women in public life.
But as a young woman in Texas, it was not something she would have predicted for herself.
A former Kilgore Rangerette - not a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader as long-ago was rumored - she had attended what was then Kilgore Junior College and was working as a secretary when she met Philadelphia native Dan Colombi, a young doctor stationed at an Air Force base near Dallas.
After a whirlwind courtship, the couple wed and went to live for about year in the Philippines. Then the Air Force moved the couple to Oklahoma. When it was time for his discharge, Dan Colombi said he wanted to return east.
"I was game," she said.
Indeed. She went on ahead, driving a gold Mustang with a stick shift all the way from Oklahoma, firstborn daughter Tiffany riding copilot in a car seat beside her. She found an apartment in Maple Shade but bought a house in Haddonfield.
Colombi got active in parent-teacher associations, helped organize the Pigtail Softball League, and was the first female president of the Wedgewood Swim Club.
But when a proposed waste digester threatened to bring trucks toting sewage to their neighborhood several times a day, Colombi and other community members pushed back. It wasn't long before neighbors started talking to her about running for office.
The rest, as they say, is history.
"To her credit, she made this town a better town to live in," said former Mayor Jack Tarditi, who served with Colombi. "She gave her heart to this town."
Mary Previte, a former state assemblywoman, praised Colombi's support of the borough's community gardeners and much more.
"Tish demonstrates the best of hands-on leadership," Previte said. "When Hurricane Sandy flooded sewer water into several basements in our neighborhood, Mayor Colombi was out there in her boots with the borough sewer team and a Caterpillar."
Fellow Commissioner Ed Borden has called her "fearless" - willing to take positions that may be unpopular.
Several years ago, after two alcohol-related deaths of young people, Colombi supported creation of a controversial 24/7 policy of punishing students for off-campus misconduct. The policy was stopped after a state judge ruled it overreaching.
Colombi also backed the recent referendum question for the school district to buy the Bancroft school property. The question's defeat, she said, was perhaps her biggest disappointment while in office.
Haddonfield United, a relatively new grassroots group, was instrumental in that defeat. It has also been highly critical of the planned installation of artificial turf at the high school playing and practice fields - something Colombi supports - and, most recently, the borough's handling of a sewage spill near Wedgewood.
The group and its founder, Brian Kelly, have also accused the town's power structure of lacking transparency, not being inclusive, and using tax dollars to fund projects they favor over what some residents consider more pressing needs.
All are criticisms to which Colombi takes strong exception.
Even so, Kelly had kind words for Colombi.
"She served Haddonfield 28 years and she deserves a lot of kudos for that," Kelly said. "She was a great ambassador for Haddonfield."
Colombi said she doesn't have specific retirement plans. Maybe she will linger in her pajamas a bit more often. There will be more family time. But she will also work on various committees. She plans to continue to serve the town that Haddon established 300 years ago and that Colombi helped govern for the last 28.
"I wish Elizabeth Haddon could come back," Colombi mused, "and that she would able to say, 'You've been good stewards of my community.' "