PRINCETON: Loose Ends: ‘Where were you when … ?’

By Pam Hersh Special Writer
    How often have you been asked where were you when — the Soviet missiles in Cuba brought us to the brink of a nuclear holocaust, JFK or MLK or RFK was assassinated, the Challenger disintegrated in space, the planes crashed into the Twin Towers on 9/11 — and, most recently, when President Obama was inaugurated?
    What is curious about this list is that except for the Obama inauguration, all of the commonly asked where-were-you-whens commemorate horrible events.
    The inauguration, aside from occurring on Jan. 20, my son’s birthday, will be forever memorable because of its joyous rather than tragic nature. I had resigned myself to the fact I would be unable to say that Washington, D.C. was where I was when Obama was inaugurated. However, I swallowed hard, tried to reflect the magnanimous spirit espoused by President Obama, and focused on not where I wanted to be, but where I was.
    On Obama’s Inauguration Day, I and other Princetonians had many options for celebration. I could have gone to Dodds Auditorium at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson Schoolm the Princeton Public Library, the cafeteria of University Medical Center at Princeton, Triumph Brewery, the Tap Room at the Nassau Inn, and other places that I am sure never made it onto my radar screen.
    My kids suggested that I go to New Brunswick, where the Heldrich Hotel was hosting a gala celebration. I opted to go to where I was actually invited: The Paul Robeson Center for the Arts on Witherspoon Street. The message on the postcard invitation was simple but compelling: “Come celebrate with your neighbors.” Having walked on Witherspoon Street nearly every day for the past 30 years and passed the Paul Robeson Center in its various phases of development and redevelopment, I established a real connection with the people living and working in that neighborhood.
    Upon reflection, a day later, I felt as though I had been to Princeton’s version of the Washington, D.C. “Neighborhood” Inaugural Ball. At the Witherspoon Neighborhood Ball, there were no fancy designer gowns and no boogie-ing with the President, no pundits pontificating, no Yo-Yo Ma, no Aretha Franklin, no Aretha Franklin hat.
    However, the event did have one of Pam’s hats; a giant American flag; Tom Florek playing the accordion, red, white and blue balloons; a huge sheet cake, donated by McCaffrey’s, decorated with a picture of the New Yorker cover depicting the new president walking into the White House; an anonymously donated door prize of two books by local authors about the U.S. presidency; singing led by local residents, and an amazing mix of residents — all ages, all races, all levels of education and sophistication, all economic situations from employed to unemployed, from trust funds to no funds.
    As wonderful as the Arts Council of Princeton program and reception were, some other qualities made the event compelling. First of all, we were marking the election of the first African American president in the history of the United States — in a building honoring African-American Paul Robeson, Princeton native, whose renowned achievements (athlete, actor, singer, scholar, author, political activist) helped pave the way for the historic U.S. presidential inauguration.
    And then I really got hung up on two wall hangings in the building.
    The first mural, conceived by Arts Council founder Anne Reeves, was mounted just for the inauguration celebration. It asked people to subscribe to the Obama challenge and inscribe on the mural “How I WILL help.” People who signed the mural promised they would do a variety of community-improvement projects, such as pick up garbage, tutor a child, help a senior citizen, and donate blood.
    If everyone who watched the inauguration throughout the world committed to doing only one simple act of charity to make a difference in his/her neighborhood, the world would be transformed.
    The second mural, which got very little notice during the course of the day, was one that has been mounted in the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts since the building’s re-opening in June. It is the neighborhood quilt, a Gail Mitchell creation that illustrates the history of Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood with historic photos of people and buildings, plus signatures of residents born and raised in the neighborhood.
    One of the pictures on the quilt is the Morning Star Church of God in Christ, a pentecostal church, chartered in June 1941, now located on Birch Avenue, under the leadership of the Reverend Jerry Foreman.
    Two of the Witherspoon-Jackson residents who are represented on the quilt — Minnie Craig and Shirley Satterfield — told me that the church is financially poor but spiritually rich, as illustrated by the Saturday morning program providing free food to the neediest in the neighborhood, regardless of church affiliation.
    The members of the Morning Star congregation have been implementing the Obama challenge without fanfare long before President Obama called upon the nation’s citizens to get involved in overcoming the current national economic crisis.
    As I strolled down Witherspoon Street after the Arts Council hoopla, I walked past the Morning Star church, and a thought came to me. Of all the locations where Princetonians celebrated President Obama’s inauguration, the church would have been the most appropriate setting for “Where Were You When?”
A longtime resident of Princeton, Pam Hersh is vice president for government and community affairs with Princeton HealthCare System. She is a former managing editor of The Princeton Packet