Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton
Princeton Resident Willie Mae Tadlock Takes an Active Role in Community
Willie Mae Tadlock has just marked the 75th anniversary of her arrival in Princeton. She came to town September 9,1929 at the age of one from Marion, S.C., where she was born.
A true Princetonian in every sense of the word, she spent nearly all of the following years here. She is in a unique position to view Princeton's evolution from a small, bucolic town, home to a prestigious university, into a thriving suburb, attracting new residents all the time.
Her parents, George and Mattie Montgomery brought their family of seven girls (two boys had died, and later two more boys would be born) to Princeton in the hope of finding more opportunity. Willie Mae was the youngest girl.
"My parents gave me a real Southern name," she explains. "It's not a nickname it's the real thing!
"My father had relatives in Princeton," she continues, "and he thought there would be better chances for work here."
In those days of the Great Depression, Mr. Montgomery was able to find work with the federal government's WPA program, and later with Princeton Borough. Mrs. Tadlock's mother worked in the kitchen of Renwick's, a long-time, popular restaurant on Nassau Street, and also for General Motors in Trenton.
"We lived all over Princeton," adds Mrs. Tadlock. "24 John Street, on Jackson Street, Birch Avenue, and Marjoram Court. We often stayed with relatives.
"When they were building Palmer Square, they moved us out of John Street, but found us a big farm house near the Battlefield. There was a lot of space, a lot of grass, and in the summer, there were all the fruit trees, blueberries, tomatoes, etc. My father had a big garden, a big vegetable garden".
Despite economic hard times, Mrs. Tadlock remembers a happy childhood, with lots of family and friends around.
"We played outside and got a lot of exercise. We played tag and other games, and I liked all sports. I was a happy-go-lucky person and enjoyed everything. We used to laugh that we didn't know we were poor until the white man told us we were poor. We took every day as we found it. Also, we were a close family. My mother and father honed that into us. They'd say no one came between the family."
Willie Mae loved school from the beginning, and admired many of her teachers. "To this day, I remember Mrs. Henderson's creamed spinach when I was in nursery school. It was something!
"From kindergarten through eighth grade, I went to Witherspoon School on Quarry Street. I really admired my eighth grade teacher, Miss Gates. I thought she was the smartest thing,"
Also, during this time, Willie Mae became a big movie fan, attending shows at The Garden and The Playhouse whenever she could.
"I loved the movies. I had a four-drawer file cabinet and kept a folder on all the movie stars. It included their pictures, their movie name, their real name, and the movies they were in.
"I liked Shirley Temple when she was a little girl, Claude Rains, Paul Muni, and especially Gregory Peck. He was something! Also, Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis, but I never cared for Joan Crawford. I remember I liked the movie The Song of Bernadette, but I really liked musicals best. They had a flair about them in those days."
When she was 13, Willie Mae's life took an unexpected turn. She became pregnant, and because of that, she did not attend Princeton High School, but instead went to school in Philadelphia.
"Our family stuck together, and they helped me," she recalls. "It was the norm in black society that if a child made a mistake and had a child out of wedlock, someone in the family took care of the baby. My mother chose to keep her grandchild with her. My son Donald knew I was his mother, but he always called my mother, 'Mama'."
Attending high school in Philadelphia made for a long day. Willie Mae commuted by train, and also worked at night at Renwick's as second cook.
"I liked high school, and I enjoyed studying. I always loved to read everything. I loved the printed word," she says, smiling. "I was able to do my homework at Renwick's, and I often didn't get home until 2 a.m. Then, I'd have to get up at 5 to get the train to Philadelphia. But I was young, and it didn't bother me."
As a teenager, Willie Mae looked forward to a career in medicine. It would happen, but it took an interesting and circuitous path to get there, she explains.
"My mother always told us not to become someone's maid, but to find a profession and go into it. When I graduated from high school, I wanted to go to nursing school. My dream was to become a doctor, and my plan was to become an LPN to pay for me to become an RN, which would pay for me to become a doctor.
"However, when I got to nursing school, I found I liked it so much, and it was such an important way to be of service to people that I didn't go on to medical school. In those days, nurses were the ones really close to patients."
She took initial nurse's training in Florida, and then earned an LPN degree from the Beaumont School of Nursing in Philadelphia.
"I was offered a scholarship to Bellevue Hospital in New York," she adds, "but then my mother died, and I had to come home and take care of my father.
"During that time, I also worked for RCA as an assistant librarian and at the Belle Mead Depot as a file clerk. My sisters, Grace and Helen, and I, alternated taking care of the house."
Her life took another turn in 1956 when Willie Mae married Joseph Tadlock, a life-long friend.
"We had gone to school together, and we had always known each other," she says. "Joseph was in the Air Force, and he was sent to Prestwick Air Force Base in Scotland. Donald and I went with him, and while I was there, it occurred to me, 'I'm getting up, coming to the base, and sitting around doing nothing. What a waste of time!'
"Then, I saw an article about the shortage of nurses, and I ended up at Ballochmyle Hospital School of Nursing in Cumnock, which was 11 miles from the base. I had two and a half years there before Joseph was transferred to K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Michigan. I took training as an RN at St. Luke's in Marquette, Michigan, and got my RN degree there."
Mrs. Tadlock reports that she enjoyed the opportunity to live in different places, both in Scotland and Michigan. They were very positive experiences.
"I loved Scotland, and I loved Michigan, too. I have the ability to be happy wherever I am."
Returning to Princeton in the late 1960s, however, she decided to stay in her home town. A staff sergeant, Mr. Tadlock was stationed abroad, including in Vietnam, until his retirement in the 1980s, and Mrs. Tadlock remained home during this time with sons Donald and Briar Nelson Tadlock.
Working as an RN at Princeton Hospital, she concentrated on general duty as well as private duty. "I especially enjoyed nursing because it was a chance to meet people and help them get well," she explains. "I met people eager to get well and sometimes, those who really did not want to get well. It was a real mix of people."
It was after her return to Princeton that Mrs. Tadlock became active in community affairs.
"My sisters, Oneta Campbell and Kathleen Edwards had been very involved in these activities," she points out, "and I began to get involved initially because some things were going wrong. Someone was trying to take away black people's homes. People were coming in and buying up property to turn them into town houses. It wasn't right. I think you should leave people alone instead of uprooting them.
"Also, Princeton needs to stop letting different institutions box it in. For example, just because Princeton University or other institutions have the money to buy up all the houses and force people out, they shouldn't do this."
After she retired from nursing in 2000, Mrs. Tadlock became more active and joined the Witherspoon-Jackson Association as a member of the steering committee. Most recently, she was involved in the Association's opposition to the expansion of the Arts Council building, viewed by the Association as too large and inappropriate to the surrounding neighborhood.
"We objected to the size of the building and the variances granted to the Arts Council," she explains. "These were variances that people down here can't get from the Borough. What makes me mad is the City Council gets a fixed idea in their heads.
"Also, if the people at the Arts Council had come and tried to work with the people from the community in the beginning, they would have found a more receptive audience. But then they tried to twist it around that we were trying to keep the Arts Council from having their programs. That wasn't it. They couldn't figure out how they could do with less, and we showed them how. I was fighting for them to reduce the size of the building, and we were successful.
"I was really on the periphery of the Association," she adds. "My sisters, Kathy and Oneta they're the ones who fought long and hard.
"And, I think the group itself has made a difference. It came into being to get people involved. It talked to people in the neighborhood individually, encouraging them to fix up their houses and take pride in them. People in the neighborhood were beginning to think that whatever they said in Princeton didn't amount to a hill of beans, and now they see that it does. Having issues like these spurred the neighborhood to get involved. Now we get 200 people coming to meetings."
Like it Is
Mrs. Tadlock is definitely not at a loss for words, and never reluctant to speak her mind when it is an issue important to her or to the community.
As her long-time friend, Minnie Craig, also a member of the Witherspoon-Jackson Association, notes, "Our friend Willie Mae Tadlock tells it like it is! And she's a staunch advocate of human rights."
James Floyd, former Mayor of Princeton Township, and another community advocate, agrees. "It takes motivation to get some people started, and dedication carries them on. With Willie Mae, you don't really need motivation. Her commitment and love of service just propels her into any project she's involved in her church, her neighborhood, her friends, and her family.
"Willie Mae has the habit of service, and such energy! Her courage and willingness and commitment carry her on. Whatever she sets her heart and mind to, you can count on her to see it through. I feel privileged to have been her friend for many years."
Another interest of Mrs. Tadlock is consolidation of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township. As in all other areas to which she is committed, she has definite opinions.
"I tried to get consolidation through years ago. I remember in my twenties, we had a big referendum coming up about it. The two Princetons have to get together because Princeton needs space to make progress, and it will be a financial benefit. If you consolidate the town, it's like getting married. Before, she had bills and he had bills; when you're married, it's our bills. Princeton is too small a community to have to have two of everything."
Her home for so many years, Princeton remains a special place to her, and she has seen enormous changes in the town.
"I've seen Princeton from the horse and buggy days literally when there were horse-drawn carriages on Nassau Street. There have been a lot of changes. You used to go down Nassau Street and you'd know everyone. Now, you hardly know anyone on the street. Overall, though, I think Princeton is a pretty snazzy place. There is really no slummy part in Princeton anymore, and there used to be. It's a pretty town, and I think they do work hard to keep it pretty.
"Another thing, we talk a lot about the 'master-slave' mentality that has existed and still does to some extent. One of the things I like about Princeton is that most of the people who come here come with an attitude that lifts you up. Even if you are working for them, they want you to be the best you can be. Of course, there is always prejudice, but it has improved. My philosophy has always been there is no one above me and no one below me.
"I think Princeton University is another reason why our standards are higher than they might have been otherwise," she adds. "It's a big university in a small town, and it provides a lot for people. Personally, I've always enjoyed the P-Rades. They were great fun to watch."
A person of many interests, Mrs. Tadlock has enjoyed knitting, sewing (having made all her own clothes for 16 years), gardening, and playing the piano. Unfortunately, these activities are less available to her now because of arthritis in her hands.
"I used to play hymns a lot on the piano," she says. "I love harmonious music. I played, they tell me, from the age of three. I had gifts and didn't always use them, and now, unfortunately, I can't."
Not one to dwell on what she can't do, however, Mrs. Tadlock is not only active in the issues of the day in her community, but in her role as a deacon in the First Baptist Church of Princeton.
"I've been involved in the church since I was a young girl," she explains. "A deacon in the Baptist Church is the spiritual arm of the church. The deacon helps the pastor help people who are having trouble, those trying to solve spiritual problems.
"Everyone does not come into church at the same level of spirituality as others," she points out. "Sometimes, people get frustrated and don't always know what to expect. We try to help them with those questions. I look forward to continuing to do God's will here on earth and to seeing my Savior when I die."
Princeton resident Hettie Dean is Mrs. Tadlock's friend of long-standing, neighbor, and also a member of the congregation of the First Baptist Church.
"I have known Willie Mae Tadlock for 40-plus years, ever since I first came to Princeton as a teenager. She is a very hard-working person and a 'people' person. She enjoys people, and she also loves to talk.
"The church is one of the most important things in her life. She's one of the deacons, and has served in many other capacities. She especially loves Bible study, Sunday School, and singing in the choir.
"If she can help you in any way, she will do so," continues Mrs. Dean. "I live across the street from her, and if I needed her at midnight, she would be there for me. She's like a member of the family. She is a person you can really depend on, and she is a wonderful person to know."
As Mrs. Tadlock reflects on her many years in Princeton, she is proud of the active role she and her family have played in the town's commitment to individual rights, and she is happy to spend time with family and friends, and enjoy the variety of activities Princeton offers.
"I like to go to McCarter Theatre, and we'll be seeing 'Three Mo' Tenors' this month. I still travel, and have been to a lot of places in the U.S, as well as to Spain. I was in Houston this summer, and liked it until I looked up at the side of the building and saw it said 102 degrees!"
Her home, with large, light rooms, is a pleasure for her, and is filled with many family photos and framed diplomas and degrees. As she says, "I need to have space and light around me.
"I am also friendly with a lot of people, and I'm close to my family. Now there are only three of us from our original family. My sisters, Helen Bess in Princeton, and Mabel Silvia in Pawtucket, R.I., and myself. We stay in close touch, but we're not in each other's pocket."
Mrs. Tadlock's niece, Penny Edwards Carter, former Clerk of Princeton Borough, is also in touch, and emphasizes the value of family to Mrs. Tadlock.
"I have never met siblings who were as close as she and her brothers and sisters. Aunt Willie Mae is a very strong, no-nonsense person. She is also very generous and has a loving heart. You can always count on her. She is always there for her family."
Indeed. Whether as a nurse, friend, or as community advocate, Mrs. Tadlock 's concern for others and for the betterment of the community have been the focus of her adult life. And what's more, you always know where she stands!