She taught an alderman how to lead, a DJ how to serve, and a young woman how to rebuild her life. Those and other beneficiaries of Mae Ola Riddick’s advice shared their gratitude in a heartfelt radio tribute to their late matriarch.
People recalled Riddick’s many wise words Thursday night in the plaza outside the Charles Street police substation in Dixwell. WYBC DJ Juan Castillo broadcast live from the site. He interviewed people whose lives were touched by Riddick, the neighborhood’s champion mover and shaker for decades.
On a temperate and beautiful night, as community members trickled in and out and chatted, Castillo interviewed some of Riddick’s many “children”—she had no biological children of her own—at the substation where Riddick had presided over many a community meeting.
As Castillo asked some people what Riddick had meant in their lives, others lit memorial candles, grilled hot dogs and burgers, and showed each other favorite Mae Ola snapshots.
The event—organized by Cindy Bankhead, and Helen Powell, and police Lt. Patricia Helliger—was also a fundraiser. People contributed money to carry on some of Riddick’s signature activities, like feeding hundreds of needy families at Thanksgiving and giving out toys at Christmas.
Click here for a previous article that limns Riddick’s many roles as alderwoman, tenant organizer, selfless mentor, and one of the indispensable advocates who brought in the federal Hope VI grant that helped to replace the troubled Elm Haven projects with Monterey Place.
“I remember her holding the last brick at Elm Haven,” said Dawn Aranjo.
Aranjo also recalled how Riddick “found” her when she’d lost her way in drugs and was staying with people who were a bad influence. Riddick got Aranjo a place to live and a job. Aranjo and Janice Parker, another young woman who considers Riddick her mom, helped nurse Riddick in her final days at her Henry Street apartment.
“I feel good in my heart, I thank God I got an opportunity to tend her,” said Aranjo, who works for Yale-New Haven Hospital.
Several people recalled how Riddick spoke: plainly and strongly to those in power. They described a woman whose persuasiveness came out of remarkable selflessness. If you knocked on her door and needed a place to sleep, she let you in or found a place for you to lay your head, said Bankhead.
Bankhead recalled asking Riddick why she didn’t ever lock her door. The answer: “What I got that people want, they can have.”
Castillo said he never forgot a visit from Riddick in 1974. “She made me realize I had a responsibility to this community,” he said. As he moved up in the ranks at WYBC, he made sure that the station played public service announcements more frequently than other music stations, and that the station sponsored community events. “All that is about her,” he said.
Stetson librarian Diane Brown remembers Riddick from a meeting when Brown was a young woman working at the Q House community center. Brown recalled a time when Riddick had stood up for her at a public meeting. “Let’s give her credit for saying what was on everyone’s mind,” Riddick had said of Brown.
“Mae Ola always kept it real,” Brown said.
Many people recalled Riddick standing up for people, especially younger women. Others recalled Riddick as a “genius” in dealing with people, holding firm to what she believed in, and getting things done.
Genius, Adventurer, General
Former Alderman Yusuf Shah remembered that when he joined the Board of Aldermen in 2000, he represented Ward 23 and sat next to Riddick, who represented Ward 22.
“Sit down, shut up and listen, and don’t say anything for at least a year,” Shah recalled Riddick telling him. “The more I kept my mouth shut, the more she was able to guide me. She mentored people without them knowing they were being mentored.”
Priscilla Taylor worked with Riddick on her Thanksgiving campaigns. “I was her delivery girl for turkeys,” Taylor recalled. “She wasn’t about verbiage, but about doing.”
“I see her as an adventurer,” Taylor said. Spending the day with Riddick might mean “breakfast with the mayor, lunch with the governor, maybe dinner with President Obama.”
Paul “Hollywood” Henderson (pictured) sat down at Castillo’s microphone and recalled his childhood in the Church Street South housing project in the Hill. He said that the kids in his neighborhood heard about how good the kids in Dixwell had it, thanks to Riddick’s efforts. “We’d heard of all the trips the kids in Dixwell went on,” he said.
Henderson, who now coaches basketball at Hillhouse High School, said he got in touch with Riddick. She started reaching out to politicians in the Hill. Suddenly there were trips for kids there.
“I started calling her Payola instead of Mae Ola,” Henderson said.
“She might be sleeping, but she lives on [in the work everyone is doing]. They need to put the flag at half staff. This woman was a general,” said Bankhead.
Family and friends are asking for donations to help bury Mae Ola Riddick. Donations can be made to McClam Funeral Home at 95 Dixwell Ave. in New Haven.