It has been decades since Riletta T. Cream lived in Camden. But the longtime educator and political figure has never forgotten her hometown roots.
Cream will celebrate her 90th birthday at a scholarship fund-raiser bash Monday night to give back to the city she adores by helping Camden students pursue dreams of a college education.
"I love Camden," Cream said in an interview last week. "I have to give back."
Born and raised in South Camden in one of the city's oldest black neighborhoods, Cream has been synonymous with the city, education, and Camden High, where she was a principal for 15 years.
After nearly 40 years in education, Cream spent 15 years on the Camden County Freeholder Board. She was widely regarded as "Camden's freeholder," although she has lived in the suburbs since 1948, always in Camden County.
"She may have moved out of the city but she never left the city, that's for sure," said Freeholder Board Director Louis Cappelli Jr. "She's a legend."
Cream left public life when she retired from the Freeholder Board in February 2011, just shy of completing her fifth term. She was appointed to the board by the county Democrats after the sudden death of Aletha Wright in 1994.
For many city residents, Cream was known as the principal who turned around Camden High. The school, then with 2,200 students, was in turmoil, and several administrators had left abruptly before then Mayor Angelo Errichetti recruited Cream to take the job in 1972.
At the time, Cream was principal at Pyne Poynt School in Camden. The former first-grade teacher had spent most of her career with younger students.
She accepted the job and built a reputation as a caring but no-nonsense administrator who earned the respect of students and her staff. Known for wearing high heels that clicked when she walked the hallways, she also was a familiar face at basketball and football games.
"She really built 'the High' up," said Patricia Cook, a retired Camden school principal who worked under Cream as an administrative assistant. She was mentored by Cream and later was a principal at three city schools.
Former students say she pushed them to excel academically. Former teachers say she encouraged them, too, to advance their careers and follow in her footsteps and become principals.
"She had a certain type of standards and students obeyed her," recalled former student Chris Collins, 48, the publisher of the weekly newspaper the Anointed News Journal, who lives in the city's Parkside section. "We knew that she had our best interests at heart."
Cream retired in 1987, at age 60. "It was the best experience of my life."
Collins, who graduated from Camden High in 1986, said Cream remembered her students' names years later. She wrote recommendation letters and helped many find employment, he said.
"She was the perfect example," said Collins. "She is our living legend and hometown hero."
Cream was married to another Camden icon - boxing great Jersey Joe Walcott, who became the oldest fighter to win the heavyweight championship in 1951 at age 37. Walcott, whose real name was Arnold Cream, died in 1994.
The oldest of four, Riletta Cream grew up on Sycamore Street. Her mother died when Cream was 9, and her father, William P. Twyne, a cement mason, raised his children with help from neighbors during a time when neighbors looked out for each other and the corner store owner let them buy groceries on credit.
After graduating from Camden High in 1944, Cream enrolled in Glassboro State College, now Rowan University. During the summers, she worked at Campbell Soup's factory downtown, where she removed rotten tomatoes from the conveyor belt.
She landed her first teaching job at Whittier School, a segregated elementary school in her old neighborhood. Today, a city elementary school bears her name, as well as a library she helped get built on Ferry Avenue - the only branch that was kept open after a county takeover of the city library system.
Cream, who lives in Winslow Township, said she maintains close ties to Camden. She owns property in the city and regularly attends Nazarene Baptist Church in South Camden.
But she insists that she wants to be known as more than "Miss Camden." She said she hopes that her life story will inspire all children, but especially those from her hometown.
Some of her former students are among the 300 people expected to attend a $90-a-plate birthday dinner Monday night at Lucien's Manor in Berlin. (Her actual birthday was Sunday.) The guests also include former teachers, administrators, and political figures. Organizers hope to raise at least $10,000 for Cream's scholarship fund.
A former student, Brett Waters, spearheaded the gala and will serve as the master of ceremonies at the event. Cream was honored by the gesture but insisted that the proceeds benefit the scholarship fund, said Stephanie Fisher, her former Freeholder Board chief of staff for 14 years.
"Everything is for her scholarship," said Fisher, "She accepts no gifts."
Putting up $4,000 of her own money and $6,000 from her retirement luncheon, Cream founded the scholarship program in 1989. Each year, the Cream scholarship offers $1,000 scholarships to four graduates of Camden high schools. She also has contributed to scholarships at Camden County College and Rowan University.
"I want to be a shining light to all children," Cream said. "I've had a wonderful life. I come from Camden. If I did it they can do it, too."