ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. announced the four winners and four honorable mention recipients of the 2021 Essex County Senior Citizen Legacies Writing Contest in a July 1 press release. Normally announced in May during Older Americans Month, the awards were delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Listening to our senior citizens read their stories during the awards ceremony is one of my most favorite events. The writers’ vivid recollections stir up great memories and share lessons they have learned during their lifetime,” DiVincenzo said. “Unfortunately, the coronavirus forced us to cancel our in-person celebration of our talented writers and the ongoing concerns for public health means we won’t be able to reschedule. As with each year, we were impressed with the entries and did not want to completely deprive our seniors of this much-anticipated event.”
Selected as winners of the 2021 Senior Citizen Legacies Writing Contest were South Orange resident Lorraine Kerry Barrett, Bloomfield resident Lois De Julio, Belleville resident Donna Roman Hernandez and East Orange resident Lottie Williams. Receiving honorable mentions were Verona resident Connie Evans, South Orange resident Karuna Kumar, Livingston resident Reginald Sims and Livingston resident Joan Speare.
Barrett wrote “Thomas A. Cowan – Professor of Law.” While studying at Rutgers Law School in the 1970s, Barrett met Cowan, a law professor. Although a law student, Barrett and her husband had a growing family and Cowan lent them the money to make a down payment on a house. Profoundly grateful, Barrett said the professor grew tired of her constantly thanking him and told her to “find someone in need and help them.” That stuck with Barrett, who has been involved in several missions to help the poor in Haiti. In addition, she and her husband have been living in the house that Cowan helped them purchase for the last 43 years.
De Julio wrote “The Brave and Able Hands” about the time she met U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan at a banquet to commemorate the Hudson County Courthouse being named in his honor. An attorney with the Public Defenders Office, De Julio was involved in the court case to prevent capital punishment from being legal in New Jersey. In their brief meeting, she promised Brennan that she would not let the death penalty be used. While Brennan did not live to see it, in 2007 the death penalty law was repealed, and the death penalty was never used during the 15 years the law was litigated in court.
Roman Hernandez wrote “My Life Altering Experience.” Roman Hernandez and her mother are survivors of domestic violence; her life-altering moment came when she confronted her abusive father. During the argument, he almost killed her; however, Roman Hernandez devised a plan to take her mother, move out of the house and begin a new life. She also founded several organizations to help domestic violence survivors and raise awareness about domestic violence. “I feel safe to tell my story because it is my legacy. It shines light into the dark places of my victimization and empowers others through survivorship to break the silence and cycle of domestic violence,” she wrote.
Williams wrote “My Road to Freedom (How I Dodged the AIDS Bullet).” In 1996, Williams learned her husband had contracted AIDS. She felt betrayed, worried that she and her son had been infected and she wanted to leave her husband. When a coworker found out, she harassed Williams in the office. Luckily, Williams had the support of her family and relied on her spiritual strength. She remained with her husband, her son caring for him when she went to work. Her family endured many hardships, but she says she is stronger today because of her experience.
Evans wrote “The Silence” after receiving her second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Writing before she drove away from the vaccination center, she shared her ordeal of living through the pandemic during the previous year. She had moved to New Jersey to help take care of her grandchildren and was now feeling useless because everyone was working or going to school from home. She decided to get her own condo and closed on her new home on Election Day.
Kumar wrote “My Grandmother: An Icon of Her Times.” Kumar’s grandmother was a proud and independent woman. Married at the age of 13, she became a widower at a very young age, but never relied on others for help. Women were considered subservient to men in Indian culture, but she encouraged her grandchildren to further their education and pursue professional careers. “Her exceptionally independent and dynamic spirit never failed to astonish me and it was from her that I learned to value independence and self-sufficiency,” Kumar wrote.
Sims wrote “Mrs. Wilkerson and The Four Letter Word” about Jesse Wilkerson, a junior high school teacher who had a profound influence on him. Wilkerson advised Sims, who was on student council, that issues the students had with cafeteria food needed to be communicated with “tact.” Sims has used that advice throughout his life, when entering a new high school, experiencing different cultures in college and representing clients as a lawyer. “Odd thing about words, a tack can place something on a wall, but using tact can hit the nail on the head, especially when dealing with human emotions,” he wrote.
Speare wrote “Taking Chances,” recounting a chance encounter in which returning lost keys to a stranger led Speare to take a chance and pursue her dream of working in the ad specialty industry. Discriminated against because she was a woman in a male-dominated industry, Speare became successful in her career and regularly was one of the top commission earners. Her advice to others, she wrote, is: “I was brave enough to make the leap off the precipice. I knew deep in my heart that this was where I belonged and I would be successful.”