The Willingboro Township Council voted unanimously Tuesday to rescind its controversial decision to rename the John F. Kennedy Center - the town's former high school - as the Barack Obama Center.
Cheers erupted among the more than 200 people who filled the bleachers and chairs at the JFK Center's auditorium, where the meeting was held. Many said they had come to protest a name change they viewed as disrespectful of a beloved president.
The uproar wasn't about President Obama in this predominantly middle-class black community of 31,000, which had voted for the nation's first black president twice. Many residents said they objected to removing Kennedy's name from the building.
"I was 5 when Kennedy came to Willingboro Plaza in 1960," said Christine Getz-Alfinito, who graduated from JFK with the Class of 1973 and still lives in Willingboro, before the meeting. "They built this in '66, and named it after Kennedy after he was assassinated. He died for this country."
"I just think it's wrong," said Elaine Phillips, Class of 1978, as she joined other alumni at the meeting. "In my heart, I'm always going to be a Gryphon."
The crowd carried placards and was prepared to present a petition signed by more than 1,200 alumni of the high school, which closed in the 1990s when Willingboro High School was built. The building later reopened as a senior center, a recreational hall, and a multipurpose auditorium and is nearing completion of a $4.9 million renovation.
As the large, diverse crowd watched, the five-member all-Democratic council decided quickly to reverse its Aug. 7 vote. Councilman Chris Walker, who had proposed the name change, said he did it to honor Obama. He said he now would agree to undo that vote.
Councilman Nathaniel Anderson apologized, saying he was unaware of the history of the building and had failed to "think it through" and gather public input before supporting the name change.
Mayor Eddie Campbell said the vote meant the name change was a dead issue. He promised that if such an action was reconsidered, a public forum would be held to discuss it before any vote is taken. "We have to listen to the people. The people have spoken, and we believe in government by the people," he said.
At the Aug. 7 meeting, when the council voted 3-1 to change the name, Campbell had cast the lone dissenting vote. Campbell, 81, has served on the council for 16 years.
Kennedy was a "great leader who was one of the spearheads of the civil rights movement," Campbell said. Though Campbell said he "wholeheartedly supports Obama" and called him a great president, he said that it was not proper "to replace one president with another" when bestowing an honor on one of them by naming a building after him.
After the August vote, the name change became a topic for Internet banter, and conservative bloggers weighed in, questioning why a town would consider honoring a president the bloggers vehemently dislike.
"People all over the United States were making jokes about it, and it's hard to hear," said Kathy Paynter, a crossing guard, who said Willingboro is a good town and did not deserve to be mocked. She said the council's reversal was unexpected and the right thing, and she thanked the group from "the bottom of my heart." Perhaps the council could find another building to name after Obama, she suggested.
Katrina Wright, who graduated from JFK in 1980 and is a lawyer in her hometown, said she was concerned that the council's reversal could be wrongly construed as "a negative against Barack Obama." She said that is not the case.
Wright said she favored retaining Kennedy's name on the building because "he was a president who lost his life for this country" and his vision of equality had shaped the high school that brought her success. "It was a beautiful school," she said. "It's just bad form to erase his name."
The nearly 50-year-old Kennedy Center sits on John F. Kennedy Way. There are no plans to change the name of that winding road.