Twp. activist remembered for her passion, generosity

Ellen Wales, meeting regular, died at age 80 on New Year’s Day

BY CHRIS GAETANO Staff Writer

Ellen Wales, prominent local activist and a regular at Edison Township meetings, died at 1:15 a.m. New Year’s Day of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Wales, a 47-year resident of Edison, was 80 years old when she died at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick.

Ellen Hart Wales (l) is pictured with longtime friend Irene Wall. Wales, a longtime local activist, died Jan. 1. Ellen Hart Wales (l) is pictured with longtime friend Irene Wall. Wales, a longtime local activist, died Jan. 1. A petite woman, Wales could often be seen at public meetings debating the finer points of an ordinance or resolution alongside other local activists. Her contemporaries remember her as a passionate and intelligent woman, and one with great calm. A common sight at town meetings would involve multiple residents stepping before the podium to excoriate whoever was seated on the dais at the time, emotions running higher and higher, words sometimes getting louder and louder. And then Wales would rise from her seat and walk to the podium, the oxygen tank that sustained her in tow. Her speaking style was calm, measured, even when the content of her words made it clear that she did not care for something the council was doing. Her voice would sometimes rise in pitch, but seldom in volume, the hiss of her oxygen between sentences punctuating her points.

“Even when she was vehemently opposed to some of the positions in here, she was always a lady, she was always very matter of fact about it, never allowed it to digress into a personal debate,” said Bill Stephens, a former council member and another meeting regular.

Born Ellen Hart in 1929 in New Brunswick, Wales lived a life marked with change and fights for change. Growing up in an era when segregation and discrimination was considered not only normal but desirable, she refused to let the times interfere with what she wanted to accomplish. She signed up for an after-school swim program in her youth, but was asked to remove her name because black people were not allowed in the swimming pool; after her refusal, her school cut ties with the program. Later in her life, after graduation from Douglass College in 1952, she became the first African American teacher hired by the New Brunswick school district, an event that in previous conversations held little actual fanfare.

“Being the first African American teacher didn’t affect how I was received,” she said during a 2006 interview with the Sentinel. “They knew me as Ellen. When I walked in, they said, ‘Ellen, we know you and you know us. Would you accept a job at the junior high school?’ That was it.”

During her teaching career, first in New Brunswick and later in Edison, she applied her lifetime passion for athletics, especially basketball, to leadership in various sports programs in the area, such as providing the only post-high-school women’s sports program in New Brunswick. She also remained extremely active in her community, serving on Board of Education advisory committees, chairing the JFK Medical Center Women’s Auxiliary’s bylaws committee, chairing the Tri-Town area of Crossroads Girl Scouts Council, and being active in local, district and county PTA associations, which was how she met Councilwoman Antonia Ricigliano.

“Actually, my first meeting with her was because of being involved with the PTA at MLK School; the school opened in September 1970 and of course I always joined the PTA,” said Ricigliano, who had known Wales for 35 years. “She might have been, I don’t remember, the president of the PTA, the Associated PTA Scholarship Committee of Edison, and I served as treasurer for three years. I was a trustee for 10. So, she and I worked very closely.”

Ricigliano said she will remember Wales as one of the most intelligent people she’s ever known.

“Her intellect never made you feel as if you weren’t on her level. She was never one to speak down to you, but always spoke her mind and always spoke the truth,” said

Ricigliano.

Wales was also very active with the Edison League of Women Voters, assisting in the publication “Know Your Schools.” Many meeting regulars, including Jane Tousman, another former council member, met her through their association with the league.

“All of us came out of the League of Women Voters and learned our leadership skills there. That’s what turned me on to government … and that organization, before women were allowed to have equal rights, that was a big thing. The league taught us government … taught a lot of leaders you have today,” said Tousman.

Tousman said that Wales made a lasting impact on everyone, and she felt privileged to have called Wales a friend.

“She was one of the most remarkable characters I’d ever met. She had a lot to give in her. She was devoted to good government, and she wasn’t afraid to [step] forward,” said Tousman.

Irene Wall, another friend and meetings regular, met Wales through Tousman and clearly remembers the day they first talked to each other.

“She came to the council on one time, and I said, ‘Wow! This woman is fantastic. Who is she?’ ” said Wall. After their first meeting, the two ended up talking almost daily. She began getting teary-eyed as she recalled the impact Wales had on her life. “She is a consummate teacher. She was my mentor, along with Jane, and she was a true patriot. A true patriot. She always had the Constitution with her, and she’ll be sadly missed by a lot of people.”

She was known for the vast array of knowledge at her disposal, and everyone who was asked about her mentioned her intelligence. While not always agreeing with her from the outset, there were many instances that, in retrospect, they admitted she was right.

“She would say to me, ‘You know, you’re wrong on this,’ and I would say, ‘Oh, no, I think I’m right,’ and she’d [say], ‘No, and I’ll tell you why,’ and I’d have to say, ‘I concede, you’re right,’ ” said Wall.

Stephens recalled a specific example where the two ended up parting in opinion, much to his later regret.

“One year, we got involved in, a little bit, a board of ed. election, and she didn’t think we should do that, in terms of the organization, and she was right, and we haven’t done it since, because we said, ‘You’re right and we shouldn’t have done that, and we weren’t thinking,’ ” said Stephens.

Another trait mentioned by those who remembered her was her generosity. According to Wall, Wales had been one of 10 people to win the lottery once. She never asked how much she ended up winning, but noted that there have been multiple occasions where Wales had gifted people in need with significant amounts of money, most recently a person at the hospital where she was being cared for.

“He was going home to South America, and I guess they got to know each other for the month that she was there; somehow, she sensed he needed money for his education. She told me she gave him $1,000,” said Wall.

Stephens noted her generosity as well, saying that as an educator, Wales paid special attention to the schools, donating things such as money for a new bench or a library. He said, though, that as generous as she was personally, she was a stickler for fiscal responsibility with tax money.

“As generous as she was, and this is one of the greatest things about her, … she was very conservative in terms of what the township should be spending. … There was no one more pro education than Ellen Wales, and yet she would still challenge them on what are you going to do with this money, but at the same time if they said they needed a library in one of the schools, she wrote the check and said, ‘Go put the library in,’ ” said Stephens.

What would Wales make of all the praise said by those who knew her? Maybe the same thing she said when she was inducted into the New Brunswick High School Hall of Fame in 2006.

“I know so many men and women who have done so much for the township,” she said. “They just didn’t have a trigger, like being inducted into a hall of fame. But there’s so many other people doing so much.”

Contact Chris Gaetano at

sentnorth@gmnews.com.