IRVINGTON, NJ — Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and the Essex County Division of Senior Services recognized the writing talents of eight Essex County residents during the annual Essex County Senior Legacies Writing Contest Celebration Luncheon on Wednesday, May 24. The Legacies Writing Contest encourages Essex senior citizens to write essays about the people and events that have influenced their lives.
“Our Senior Citizen Legacies Writing Contest is a unique way for our older population to share their life’s stories and describe the people and events that helped to shape their lives,” DiVincenzo said. “Our seniors’ stories make you laugh and they touch your heart. They provide us with a different perspective on historical events and what our society was like.”
The Director’s Award was presented to Montclair resident Robin Ehrlichman Woods for “How to Mend a Broken Heart.” Winning stories were “Megan’s Story” by Livingston resident Deanna L. Adams, “Something Great Everyday” by Irvington resident Ruth Steele and “Simple Times” by Irvington resident Kathleen Witcher. Honorable mention stories were “Ladybug Ladybug” by Cedar Grove resident Peggy LaVake, “When Life Imitates Art” by Livingston resident Reginald Eugene Sims, “Love’s Labor Lost” by South Orange resident Janyce Wolf and “A Valentine to Grandpa Morris” by Josie Zeman.
“All our seniors have stories to tell, and our Legacies Writing Contest provides our older adults with an incentive to preserve their memories, and create a living history,” Essex County Division of Senior Services Director Jaklyn DeVore said. “Writing enables our seniors to share their memories with friends and families, allows them to reminisce about old times, and keeps their minds active. This is one of our most popular events because of the emotions and memories that are evoked,” she added.
Robin Ehrlichman Woods from Montclair received the Director’s Award for her story “How to Mend a Broken Heart.” Ehrlichman Woods writes that she was heartbroken as a young child when her mother passed away, and how she took responsibility for caring for her younger siblings. Her heart was broken a second time when she left her first marriage and daughter to find a safe haven. “I decided to make a life change, which saved me. But it affected my life and still does to this day,” she writes. Ehrlichman Woods was able to reconnect with her daughter many years later, although they do not share a close relationship.
Deanna L. Adams from Livingston wrote “Megan’s Story,” which was selected as one of the winning stories. Adams talks about her granddaughter, who struggled early in life with mental illness. Megan had a difficult time at home and in school, and was often ostracized by teachers and students. Once diagnosed with early onset schizoaffective disorder, she continued to face obstacles until the proper medication was identified. With proper medication, she began to thrive: her personality changed, she graduated middle school as the valedictorian and, now 18 years old, is beginning college. “Family and friends who shared her journey have become enlightened about the stigma of mental illness in our society. They have learned that those living with mental illness can thrive and prosper with appropriate interventions,” she wrote.
Ruth Steele from Irvington had her essay “Something Great Everyday” recognized as one of the winning stories. Coach Ralph Steele volunteered as a youth recreation coach for more than three decades and was a positive influence for generations of young athletes. Two days before his retirement, he was rushed to the hospital for emergency spinal surgery and suffered paralysis from the chest down from a blood clot. Never losing faith or optimism, he worked hard during rehabilitation and was able to walk with two canes. “My greatest pride was as Coach improved, he encouraged all those going to therapy around him,” Steele writes about her husband. “I am reminded that with God’s blessings and a little determination, ‘We can do something great every day.’ ”
Kathleen Witcher from Irvington wrote “Simple Times,” which was chosen as one of the winning essays. Witcher reminisces about growing up in Newark’s Central Ward during the 1950s, a much more simple time. She talks about walking to school past the factories and businesses, attending 18th Avenue School and her fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Tamburro, who constantly was giving tests. Today, the businesses and factories have been replaced by new housing and her elementary school is now a charter school where her grandson attends. “Life was simple then. Growing up gave me many lasting memories,” Witcher writes.
Peggy LaVake from Cedar Grove wrote “Ladybug Ladybug,” which received an honorable mention award. When she was a little girl, LaVake’s mother would tell her that when she died, she would be reincarnated as a ladybug. LaVake didn’t take this seriously until she spotted a ladybug in her apartment – sitting on the computer and walking on the kitchen floor. She would begin a conversation or offer a drop of water to the ladybug, but did not get a response. “So here we are on my kitchen floor. Me and my mother. Having a sweet reunion. She wasn’t kidding, or was she? I guess I’ll just pretend. Or never really know,” she writes.
Reginald Eugene Sims from Livingston received an honorable mention award for his story “When Life Imitates Art.” Sims’ family moved from East Orange to Livingston after the Newark riots in 1967, and it was uncommon for minorities to move to the all-white suburbs. “If given the chance, I could do another 50 years in my township. Yes, there were challenges and personal trails. But there were opportunities that could not have been gained anywhere else,” he writes. Mr. Sims also reminisced about one of his teachers, Miss Waldron, who went above and beyond to help him learn math and be supportive.
Janyce Wolf from South Orange wrote “Love’s Labor Lost” and received an honorable mention award. Wolf began a relationship with a man she met at work. The two traveled as a couple, and moved in together – despite him still being married with two children. They stayed together for about six years and she was devastated when their relationship ended. She was sad and disappointed, but after going out with her female friends for dinner and a movie, she realized she had to move on. She joined a singles group and started dating again. “As it turns out, a major criterion of success in a relationship for me is the ability to laugh together. And I continue laughing as much as I can,” she writes.
Josie Zeman from Montclair received an honorable mention award for “A Valentine to Grandpa Morris.” Zeman described her grandfather as the “handsomest man I ever knew.” He told her stories of growing up in North Jersey when the area was undeveloped and gypsies lived in the woods, and sang her songs when she climbed into his lap (her favorites were “Just a Kiss, Cecilia” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”). She admitted that he loved women and would go to the park to watch them.
“You don’t have to be a professional writer to participate in our Senior Legacies Writing Contest. Our seniors are very talented and they write from the heart,” Essex County Director of Citizen Services Anibal Ramos said. “Every year, I am impressed with the emotion and quality of stories. I congratulate everyone for participating.”
Sponsored by the Essex County Division of Senior Services, the Legacies Writing Contest was started in 1996 and was part of a national contest which encouraged senior citizens to discover the joys of writing while sharing their stories with others. Although the national contest was discontinued in 1998, the Essex County Division of Senior Services continued to sponsor the Legacies Writing Contest on a local level. Entries are judged on the writer’s ability to engage the reader with humor, emotional impact or rich descriptions. Winning stories were selected by a committee of volunteer judges and staff from the Essex County Division of Senior Services.