Former Camden County Freeholder Riletta Twyne Cream, 91, a retired educator and advocate who never forgot her humble roots in Camden, died Monday at Virtua Hospital in Voorhees from a heart attack.
Mrs. Cream, of Winslow Township, was hospitalized several days ago after falling in her home, said her longtime aide, Stephanie Fisher. She went into cardiac arrest Monday afternoon, she said.
As news of her death quickly spread, condolences poured in from across the region, where Mrs. Cream was known as a staunch advocate for Camden and education. Flags in the city were ordered lowered Tuesday. Mayor-elect Frank Moran recalled her as a "dynamic and innovative trailblazer."
In a statement, Mayor Dana Redd said Mrs. Cream was a mentor who inspired countless students to attend college "and always believe in themselves." Redd, who is stepping down as mayor, previously served as Mrs. Cream's aide on the freeholder board.
"She was the embodiment of what it meant to be an educator, public servant, caring community leader, and mentor," Redd said. "Her loving and nurturing spirit will be truly missed, but her imprint on this world will never be forgotten. "
Born and raised in South Camden, in one of the city's oldest black neighborhoods, Mrs. Cream was synonymous with the city, education, and Camden High School, where she was principal for 15 years. She was also active in politics, urging future allies, such as former School Board President Philip E. Freeman Sr., to seek public office.
"I took her advice, and days later I became president," said Freeman, who left the board in 2007 after serving for five years. "I always appreciated her dedication and commitment to the city."
After nearly 40 years in education, Mrs. Cream spent 15 years on the Camden County Freeholder Board. She was widely regarded as "Camden's freeholder," although she had moved to the suburbs in 1948.
Mrs. 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 county Democrats after the sudden death of Aletha Wright in 1994. Fisher said she pushed her entire staff to obtain college degrees.
Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. described Mrs. Cream as "a legend on so many different levels for the city and county." She was his mentor and running mate when he ran for office for the first time in 2002. As they crisscrossed the county campaigning, Mrs. Cream was a popular figure at events.
"There was always somebody there who knew Mrs. Cream," Cappelli said, adding that it was not surprising that she received more votes than he did that year. "They always treated her with respect."
Although she had no children of her own, Mrs. Cream was surrounded by a circle of friends and former teachers and administrators who tended to her. They checked on her daily, took her to appointments and events, and occasionally took her to Atlantic City, where she enjoyed playing slot machines. Last year, they organized a scholarship fund-raiser to celebrate her 90th birthday. It drew hundreds of guests.
"It really has been a great pleasure to have been her friend," said Patricia Cook, a retired Camden school principal, who worked under Mrs. Cream as an administrative assistant. "She was a terrific role model."
In 1972, then-Mayor Angelo Errichetti recruited Mrs. Cream to turn around Camden High. The school, then with 2,200 students, was in turmoil, and several administrators had left abruptly. At the time, she was principal at the Pyne Poynt School.
She built a reputation as a caring but no-nonsense principal who earned the respect of students and staff. Known for wearing high heels that clicked when she walked the hallways, she also was a familiar face at basketball and football games.
"It was the best experience of my life," she recalled in November 2016. She retired in 1987, at age 60.
Mrs. 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 Twyne Cream grew up on Sycamore Street. Her mother died when Mrs. Cream was 9, and her father, William P. Twyne, a cement mason, raised his children with help from neighbors.
After graduating from Camden High in 1944, Mrs. 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 education job as a first-grade teacher at Whittier, 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.
Former students say Mrs. Cream remembered their names when they encountered her years later. She wrote recommendation letters and helped many find jobs. In 1989, she started a scholarship program that has raised more than $100,000. Each year, the program offers $1,000 scholarships to four graduates of Camden high schools. She also has contributed to scholarships at Camden County College and Rowan University.
Although she maintained close ties to Camden and attended First Nazarene Baptist Church in the city, Mrs. Cream said in the November 2016 interview that she wanted to be known as more than "Miss Camden." She said she wanted to be "a shining light" and inspire children, especially those from her hometown.
"I've had a wonderful life. I come from Camden. If I did it, they can do it, too," she said.
Mrs. Cream is survived by several nieces and nephews and other relatives.
Funeral services were pending. Fisher, her former Freeholder Board chief of staff for 14 years, said services would likely be held after the Christmas holiday.
"I'm going to miss her so much. I love her like she's my mother," Fisher said, choking back tears.