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The “Chairlady” Dies At 71
by Melissa Bailey & Paul Bass | Sep 18, 2013 2:20 pm
Posted to: Dixwell
She went by many names: “Miss Mae Ola.” “Alderwoman.” “Tenant organizer.” ‘The chairlady.” And “mom”—even though she had no biological children of her own.
Whatever people called her, anyone who wanted to make a difference in the Dixwell neighborhood or did political or police business with Dixwell knew Mae Ola Riddick. And she made sure they knew what the neighborhood needed.
Riddick, who was 71, passed away Tuesday morning after a long illness, during which her many friends prayed for her recovery.
She died at the Henry Street apartment where she lived out her final years, still holding court on the stoop in the Dixwell neighborhood.
Viola Matthews, Mae Ola’s sister and only sibling, received a line of friends and adopted family members Tuesday at Riddick’s home.
“I miss her already,” Charlie Langston of Newhallville said as he entered the home Tuesday afternoon. He recalled how Riddick would cook massive Thanksgiving dinners for friends, neighbors, and anyone who was in need. “Mae fed a lot of people—including me,” he said. “She didn’t even have to know you. She would give you food.”
Helen Powell (pictured) recalled how Mae Ola and Julius Riddick took her under their wing when Powell was an 8th-grader at Troup School. The couple didn’t have any kids. They “adopted me,” she said. As Powell got older, Mae Ola “got me started in politics,” Powell recalled. Powell, who worked for the registrar of voters for 25 years, ran for alderman in Dixwell this year.
Riddick lived for years in a housing project that has since been demolished, the old Elm Haven low-rises. She was the woman unofficially in charge. She headed the tenants association. She ran the ward committee. She turned out the vote and negotiated with powerbrokers over issues ranging from policing to the development’s demolition and rebirth as Monterey Homes. She also served as primary caregiver to generations of children, some facing difficult life circumstances.
Byron Breland, a former Hillhouse High staffer who now runs his own business, counted him among those whom Mae Ola called “son.” He moved to New Haven from Syracuse and went to college at Southern Connecticut State University. He met Riddick when he ran a youth program at Elm Haven. She took him in as an adopted family member.
Though she had no biological children, Riddick raised lots of young adults and “grandkids.”
Riddick “raised the city,” said Claudette Deer, a friend visiting the home Tuesday. Deer met Riddick in 2006, when Riddick was working as a dropout prevention counselor for the school board.
“Mae Ola was a people’s person,” Deer said. “She helped the police, people in Yale’s staff; she helped the homeless. She was an organizer.”
“She always directed you to the right place that you had to go,” Deer said.
Riddick’s friends included Jack Kemp, the housing secretary in the first Bush Administration. He sent Elm Haven money for tenant organizing and, along with other national groups, hosted Riddick in D.C. and elsewhere to speak about issues facing public housing. She was an outspoken advocate for tenant management of housing projects.
Back home, Riddick was an omnipresence, and unmistakable voice, at public meetings, whether about new housing proposals for Dixwell or about community policing.
Police Chief Dean Esserman, who visited the Riddick home with relatives Tuesday morning, recalled meeting her when he first came to New Haven as an assistant chief at the dawn of community policing 22 years ago.
“She welcomed me into her home and sat me down on her couch, and then took me by the hand and walked me through the neighborhood,” Esserman recalled. “She said she was going to give me a chance. I was eternally grateful.”
They became regular breakfast pals at Patricia’s, the Whalley Avenue spot where Riddick regularly held court. Their breakfasts resumed when Esserman returned to town two years ago to serve as the city’s new police chief.
McClam Funeral Home at 95 Dixwell Ave. will handle funeral arrangements.
Tags: Mae Ola Riddick
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Being assigned for quite a number of years to Engine 6 on Goffe St. I had a lot of memories of her. Also being involved in a lot of campaigns in New Haven politics this woman’s support was needed for a city wide run. And people feared her as an adversary. She was absolutely hysterical. She’d show up on calls and if you knew Mae Ola you wouldn’t ever figure her for someone BOA. So I’d always hello how are you alderwoman just so the other guys know we had a member of the boa on scene. I could go on all day. Simply stated Mae Ola you will be missed by many. Lieutenant Gary W. Cole NHFD RIP Alderwoman.
This is a great article that scratched the surface of ALL the good work done for the Elm Haven community by this amazing woman. I write today with a very heavy heart, because the things that were done for me and my family. She was a very outspoken and abrasive individual, but the sheer love of community was ALWAYS in her tone..
You’ll be sorely missed!!!
Fascinating and inspirational woman. 71 is way too young.
She was without a doubt one of the most interesting, authentic people in New Haven. She never minced words, always told you what she thought and never took anything personally.
She will be greatly missed.
Maeola was truly a person of the people in every sense of the words. She loved everyone
regardless of their color,economic status,sex-ual preference, religion, or political party.
Her politics was always for the constituents
she represented so well. She was also a form-idable political opponent whenever the situation called for it. New Haven will certainly miss her and will be a bit different
without her. Rest in the peace you have earned
and may we be able to continue your lagacy!