Kevin Riordan: Still a commanding presence, retiring Freeholder Riletta T. Cream reflects on years as a Camden icon

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Camden County Freeholder Riletta T. Cream, in her Camden office, retired Monday in her fifth term. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

No matter what else she's done - and at 84, she's done quite a lot - Riletta T. Cream will be forever famous for her high heels.

Not merely the shoes, but their click-click-click in the hallways of Camden High School, where she reigned as principal for 15 years.

"The students didn't know where I was coming from," recalls Cream, who retired Monday from the Camden County freeholder board. "But they could hear my heels!"

That wasn't all they heard.

"I'd say, 'We don't wear hats in here. Hats off!' And if they got caught writing graffiti, they had to get a bucket and clean the graffiti up."

Still synonymous with "The High" nearly a quarter-century after she retired, Cream is widely regarded as "Camden's freeholder," even though she has lived in the suburbs for decades.

"I am still considered Camden," the Winslow Township resident declares. "I am proud of it, and I want everyone to know that I love this place. I will always care about this place."

The Camden County Democrats appointed Cream to the freeholder board after the death of Aletha Wright in 1994.

Suburban voters who didn't know her Camden High story certainly had heard of her then-husband, Arnold Cream, a.k.a. world heavyweight boxing champ Jersey Joe Walcott.

"They'd be waiting in the aisles to talk to me," she recalls.

Cream says she decided to retire before the end of her fifth, three-year freeholder term because "it's time for a younger person to take over." She suggested replacements to the Democratic organization, but says she doesn't know who will take her seat, thus enabling the individual to run as an incumbent for a full term in November.

Still a commanding presence despite the knee-replacement surgery a year ago that ended her high-heel days, Cream learned at an early age how tough life can be.

When she was 9, her mother died. Her father, a cement mason named William P. Twyne, raised Cream and three younger siblings in a rented house at 754 Sycamore St. in South Camden.

In one of the city's oldest black neighborhoods, people took care of each other: Cream's pastor at Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church gave her a ride to the entrance exam at what was then Glassboro State College. And her father paid $36 a month for train fare to and from the school.

Cream worked summers at Campbell Soup, where she remembers "taking rotten tomatoes off the conveyor belt." She got her first teaching job at Whittier, the segregated elementary school in her old neighborhood.

By the time she was named principal of Camden High in 1972, the Park Boulevard landmark and the city itself had suffered several years of racial turmoil.

"Discipline with love" was how she helped restore the venerable symbol of the community's aspirations.

"You can't be the principal of a high school with 2,200 kids and not have discipline. Students and teachers have to believe there's going to be order, and that there's going to be prices to pay for those who disobey.

"I was there for every football game. That's the secret to being a great principal of a high school. I was there for every game, every play, and it meant something. It meant I was a person who cared about what they were doing.

"Heaven knows I didn't do it by myself," Cream adds. "I had great assistant principals, great disciplinarians. I had excellent people on the team."

Although she loved the job, by age 60, "I was getting tired of always being there," Cream says. She retired in 1987 but maintained her relationship with young people in the city, among them her former aide Dana Redd, now mayor.

In 1989, Cream founded a scholarship program with $4,000 of her own money, as well as $6,000 from the purse presented at her retirement luncheon. The Cream scholarship annually offers $1,000 scholarships to four graduates of Camden high schools.

Cream is proud of that, and of the library she helped get built on Ferry Avenue - the only branch that will remain open as the county takes over the city library system.

And it was "a joy," she says, to have seen a new city elementary school named in her honor.

Not bad for a girl from Sycamore Street.

"I've had a great life," Cream says.

Indeed.

 


Contact Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.