REACHING OUT: “I like talking with people, spending time with them, listening to their stories, and I like to help them. I especially enjoy being with senior citizens. They have a history.” April McElroy, a mainstay at the Princeton Senior Resource Center, plans to retire at the end of October.
“It is hard to imagine the Senior Resource Center without April’s smiling face. She always has that smile, and in addition, a little air of mischief. She’s our cheerleader!”
Princeton Senior Resource Center volunteer and former president of the Board of Trustees Barbara Purnell is not alone in her assessment of April McElroy’s contribution to this important organization. Those who have known and worked with April McElroy at the Princeton Senior Resource Center (PRSC) all emphasize how much she will be missed when she retires at the end of October.
After 31 years as office assistant — although that title does not begin to describe or encompass her myriad responsibilities and contributions — Ms. McElroy has decided to explore new possibilities and opportunities.
“The time is right,” she explains. “I’m at a point now when I can pursue other avenues, and there are enough people to run the center very well. There are many opportunities out there. I have a lot of interests. I love to travel; I love antiques. I’m looking forward to discovering all kinds of new adventures.”
No consolation, though, for all those who will miss her at her customary post at PSRC.
The desire to be of service and help others was instilled in April from her earliest years. Born in Princeton in 1944, she was the second child of Willie and Barbara Hill. Older brother Billy, twin sisters Michael and Johnnie, and youngest sister Denise completed the family.
April attended Princeton Nursery School, Nassau Street Elementary School, John Witherspoon Junior High School (now the site of the Waxwood apartments on Quarry Street), and Princeton High School. She enjoyed playing with friends in the neighborhood. “We played outside, rode bikes, jumped rope, and played sports,” she remembers. “At that time, we could play in the recreation area, a big field, where the Community Park School is now located. We played there all the time. We also liked to ice skate on Lake Carnegie and Baker Rink at the University — that is until I fell and hit my head. Then, it wasn’t as much fun!”
Ms. McElroy’s friend of more than 50 years, Penney Edwards-Carter, former Borough Council Clerk, recalls those childhood days in the John Witherspoon neighborhood and the sense of community that existed. “I grew up with April’s twin sisters, Michael and Johnnie, and we were in and out of April’s house all the time. Their mother and my mother were friends too. Everyone knew each other then, and we had good times.”
Arts and Crafts
Music was also important to the Hill family. April went to Sunday School at the First Baptist Church, and later sang in the church choir. “I preferred to sing in a chorus than alone,” she says, “but in first grade I did sing a duet with a classmate. We all sang in the family. My brother Billy went on to establish the Billy Hill Band, and he still sings professionally. Michael and Johnnie are accomplished singers as well as champion athletes.”
Family was very important to April, and it was a blow when her father died when she was seven. “My mother then worked as a domestic, and my grandmother Wilma helped raise us. I enjoyed being with the family. I liked it on rainy days, when my mother would spread newspapers on the table, and my sisters and I would paint and do arts and crafts. Sometimes, too, we went on family vacations to see relatives in South Carolina.
“I really admired my grandmother. She was a stately woman; she always dressed nicely. I liked it when she did my hair, and we would name the Books of the Bible.”
Although Nassau Street School was integrated, there were still difficulties for African-American children in the 1950s. When April’s fourth grade class planned a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, April had reason to expect to be chosen for a leading role because of her excellent singing voice. “I tried out for the lead, and many in the class thought I would get it. But I didn’t. The teacher told me I couldn’t be the lead because I was ‘colored.’”
April faced other challenges in school as well. “I had a reading problem. Because I didn’t read correctly, it was always hard for me, and I also didn’t test well. I’d always have anxiety because I knew there would be reading. I didn’t realize I was dyslexic until years later, when I was at PSRC.”
She did have a favorite teacher, however. “I really liked and admired Miss Stecchini, my high school English teacher. She was a good teacher, and I liked her a lot. Many years later, she was in Merwick and bed-ridden, and I went to see her. It was a good visit, and she remembered me.”
Visually adept, April was very good in art and drawing, and enjoyed that opportunity in school. She also played field hockey and basketball, and sang in the choir. Often, after school and on weekends, she had jobs baby-sitting.
When April was in high school, she and her sisters, Michael and Johnnie established and performed in “The Imperial Debs”, a precision drill team. “This was fun, and they appointed me captain,” says Ms. McElroy. “We performed in a lot of parades and entered competitions in Princeton and elsewhere. We even went to Boston to compete, and we beat the Cavaliers, the long-time champions.”
After graduating from high school in 1963, April made an effort to audit a variety of courses in college in the area. “I was interested in continuing to learn,” she explains, “and also, it didn’t involve taking a test, which relieved my anxiety.”
She also worked for the Acme Market in the Princeton Shopping Center, and as she reports, “I was the first black cashier at Acme.”
In addition, while at Acme, she found an opportunity to take computer classes, which was to make a difference in her life. “When I had the computer instruction, I found a niche I was comfortable with. It gave me a lot of confidence. It made me see that I was smarter than I realized.”
This computer experience later led to a position with the Mathematica Company on Alexander Road. “I worked with computers in the research department and did surveys. It was an excellent experience.”
Another opportunity she was happy to accept was a position at Jet Magazine in New York City. “I worked with Mrs. John H. Johnson (who also published Ebony). “I commuted to New York, and this was an exciting time.”
Previously, in 1964, April was married to Lawson McElroy, who was from Pennington, and also had been director of the Imperial Debs. Eventually, they had two daughters, DeLaine and Dellice. In fact, prior to her marriage, April had briefly considered another career. “I really thought of becoming a race car driver! I loved to drive, and I used to race on the back roads with my cousins.”
The arrival of DeLaine, however, nipped that career in the bud, and as Ms. McElroy says, jokingly, “My daughter kept me from having a career as a race car driver!”
As it turned out, Ms. McElroy wore many hats over a series of years: working at Acme, Jet, Mathematica, also a stint at the Princeton Consignment Shop (“I love vintage clothes. I really enjoyed that experience”), Princeton Furs By Marvin on Witherspoon Street, Landau, modeling for the Soroptomist Club for 15 years and a member for three years. And she balanced much of this as a single mother after a divorce in the 1970s.
In 1981, she turned to what always had seemed her calling: helping others and making a difference in their lives.
“My mother always wanted to help people, and she set this example for us,” points out Ms. McElroy.
The Senior Resource Center’s first location was at Spruce Circle, she notes. “It had been founded by Jocelyn Helm and Karin Slaby, and in the beginning, there were just three of us: Jocelyn, Sue Tillett, and myself, and a few volunteers. For 15 years, I ran the Senior Resource Rummage Sale at Spruce Circle, and it was wonderful.
“I was also in charge of special events and coordinated a lot of programs, including the Landau Picnic, the Salvation Army camp, the Princeton Nursery School Christmas program, and the Housing Authority of the Borough of Princeton’s government food distribution program in the community. I also had discussions with former Princeton Borough Mayor Marvin Reed about the PSRC.
“I don’t have a college degree,” she continues. “My PhD is people. l have always spent a lot of time with people, and later, in my work at PSRC, I have found that in talking with people when they come in, spending time with them, they feel welcome and comfortable. You know, you don’t have to know someone to say hello.”
In 1994, Ms. McElroy moved to PSRC’s new location in the Suzanne Patterson Building adjacent to Borough Hall. Her responsibilities grew as the program grew, and she was involved in a series of new initiatives.
“I worked with Jan Marmor, who was the second director of PSRC, and I continued a monthly senior theme newsletter and a monthly calender that had been established. For 25 years, I have maintained the data base mailing list for 3300 recipients in the community and beyond.
“In my earlier years, I was a guide, a group leader for senior trips to Colonial Williamsburg and to upstate New York, among other places. Now, we are doing day trips to the Philadelphia Flower Show, to the theater, etc. These are very popular.”
At one point during her tenure at PSRC, Ms. McElroy also served as office assistant at Elm Court, part of the Princeton Community Affordable Housing program for seniors. “I worked with Libby Ranney, the office manager, and met a lot of people there,” she recalls. “I had an open door policy and said, ‘Come on in and talk’. I tried to let people know how important it is to talk with one another, no matter who they are. A woman I got to know there had had a bout with cancer, and we talked a lot. She got better, and then unfortunately it came back later, and she was on hospice. I went to see her, and it was a moving experience for me.”
Making a difference has been a big part of Ms. McElroy’s work. Princeton resident Rhona Porter, formerly the social worker at Elm Court, comments on Ms. McElroy’s unique ability to draw people out and make them comfortable.
“April was a delight to work with, and the residents all loved her extroverted personality. She was the first person people saw when they came into the office. She was always a warm, inviting presence.”
Current PSRC executive director Susan Hoskins LCSW echoes that view of Ms. McElroy’s contribution and character. “April’s title is office assistant, but her true gift is connecting with people of all kinds. She has welcomed so many people to PRSC, and they tell us that is why they come in. She is the personality that greets people when they come into the Suzanne Patterson Building that makes us the friendly, welcoming place to be in Princeton. She will approach anyone and start a conversation, quickly finding some interesting fact that she zooms in on, making a connection for why they must start coming to PSRC.
“April has an uncanny ability to know who is hurting, and she’ll come stand by my desk and say ‘You must come talk to this person NOW.’ I’ve learned to put down what I am doing because she is always right. I’ve learned to stop being surprised when a person says they are volunteering or coming in to a class because April told them they had to (she doesn’t accept a no answer). April believes deeply in what PSRC is all about, and she will be the first to tell others how we change lives. Over the 10 years I have known her, we have become good friends, and I expect that to continue going forward. I think she is very special.”
Anything and Everything
Adds Penney Edwards-Carter: “I believe April has done anything and everything she possibly can to help make life better for senior citizens.”
Ms. McElroy’s efforts to help those in the community have also extended to acting as chair of the Borough’s Affordable Housing program, and for the the past 25 years, serving on the Board of Elections.
Outreach has clearly been a major part of her modus operandi. “I have done a lot of outreach, including going to people’s homes to see if they need assistance. People often need help in our community. Also, I am always pulling someone into PSRC. This is important. I see situations all the time where seniors may be lonely and are not aware of all the opportunities we have here, or they are hesitant to come in and participate. They might be immigrants and not know what we offer. I see them become happier when they are involved.
“PSRC is helpful in so many ways,” she continues. “It provides opportunities for physical and mental activities and stimulation, including a lot of special seminars and classes. The number of programs has really grown over time. We also provide a lot of informational and referral material.”
Ms. McElroy has also become a photographer of note, carefully recording events and activities at PSRC on film or digitally. As one PSRC member notes: “April is a wonderful photographer. She captures the spirit of the occasion of all the events and parties, and then shares the photos with all of us.”
Now that she is on the verge of a new direction in her life, Ms. McElroy looks forward both to changes and also to continuity. While enjoying many of the opportunities that living in Princeton brings to residents, she notes a certain loss of communal mindfulness that existed in the Princeton of her past.
“I observe what is going on around me. I think it is important to be aware of this. One of the biggest changes is in housing, all the big houses being built. And the traffic congestion. Some people can’t afford to live here anymore. There are also so many changes with the stores and the turnovers. We’ve lost a sense of continuity and community.”
On the other hand, Princeton offers so much. It is intriguing to Ms. McElroy that one may encounter any number of engaging individuals at any time. “In Princeton, you never know who you will be talking to. I like talking to interesting people, people who I may not even know, or listening to a debate. I’m getting information from that person or that event. I like what I get from this, and it is something I can incorporate into my own person.”
Ms. McElroy seems able to look back and ahead at the same time, remembering past moments, and looking forward to future opportunities, “My proudest achievement is being able to help people and sharing information, and this includes with young people as well as seniors. To be successful in life, you must have kindness and understanding.
“There have been challenges, of course,” she acknowledges. “Accepting constructive criticism has been a big part of my moving forward. And I’ve had guardian angels along the way. I like to be able to give back to others. No matter what I do in the future, whatever adventures I encounter, I want to continue to be a person who reaches out to connect with people and to help them.”