Speaking to People: Fair Haven Icon Dorothy Breckenridge’s Final Crossing

She took her own advice. She didn’t set her foot down off that curb until the time was right. She listened. She heard. She waited for her own cue to speak. And she walked, ever so gracefully, a nod of acknowledged gratitude to each person to whom she spoke along her life’s path. She had heard herself crow with pride one last time, “CROOOOOOSSSSSS!”

Strong, stop-sign hands extended, the stalwart, kind Fair Haven woman who spent nearly 20 years “speaking” to children and crossing them safely to the other side of the road has crossed over herself at the age of 90. She was Dorothy Breckenridge.

She passed away on July 17 and was laid to rest last Friday. She is remembered by many. So many. Too many to squeeze into her restricted pandemic time funeral. Safety first, Mrs. B would say. Oh, but they were all there — in mind and heart — a cluster mischievous little cherubs pressed up against the glass of heaven’s window getting a last glimpse of a lady who made home their heart. All grown up and crossed.

That glimpse of her is eternal for generations of them — etched in souls. That hometown heart beats like a child’s at play. Pristine are the legacies of words and gestures. The local legend sort.

That Mrs. B was. A local legend. Her legacies were succinct, resounding ones. The kind that count. She lived an authentic life with humble values. Meaningful values. She passed those values on with unaffected gestures. A look, a wave of the hand, a few words. The impact was unfeigned, never fleeting. The crossing guard. The guardian. The mother to all.

Those gestures. They were the kind that stick with kids — her own, her neighbors’, her town’s. Etched in souls. They bear no price tag. No status symbol. They, together, bear something much more valuable — the stark truth in the legacy of living a life of meaning. I was one of those lucky kids of the 60s and 70s crossed by Mrs. B’s giving path.

I can still see her face as I waited to cross with trepidation at Knollwood School, a goofy, knock-kneed kid with a stretchy hairband, frequently leaving a shoe or both behind on my porch, balancing a pile of books. I couldn’t see over them to the curb. That and the fact that I was just plain inattentive — a terminal daydreamer.

She could see, though. She saw it all. And she watched — for all those kids. Kids like me. She woke us the heck up! I so vividly remember her face. She would look at me, at all us kids, sternly, tilt her head down as if peering over a pair of glasses, focus with that “heel” look, outstretch her arms and, before she spoke, she’d bow her head with an “I got you” smile, blow that whistle and we’d “CROOOOOSSSS!”

Yes, I was lucky. Mrs. B was also my neighbor from the other end of the block. As she saw it, though, she was everybody’s neighbor. And a great one at that. Neighborhood watch? Absolutely. Not the nit picky tattletale sort, though. Never. Not the judgmental sort either. She watched alright. Her townie kin.

And she shared — her modest principles, never judgements. Nothing of Dorothy Breckenridge’s neighborhood watch had anything to do with property value or puffing up with self-important pretense by blowing that crossing guard whistle on an unclipped hedge or a rickety porch.

To her, it was all about taking a minute to give that hedge a clip of her own, give that porch a little smile at the flowers camouflaging its worn paint.

Taking care. Crossing the kids. Watching over the neghborhood. Caring that everyone made it to the other side. Speaking to people along the way. Speaking to people.

Her son Darryl, former Fair Haven police chief, said it best himself when talking about his mother’s crucial role modeling in his life, his siblings’ and the lives of so many others. “She gave me great advice,” he said. “She told me, ‘Always speak to people. It doesn’t hurt you to stop, say hello and smile. You’ll always get something valuable from that — from caring, from taking a minute to speak to people.’”

That she did. Dorothy Breckenridge took just about every minute of her 90 years to speak to people. And they heard her. She spoke with purpose, smiling graciously, often in the face of the era’s racist sting. She defied it all with tenacious kindness. Crossing. Crossing barriers. Emblazoning in every Fair Haven kid’s memory the notion that you’d best not step that foot off the curb until she spoke to you.

Setting the record straight by crossing to the other end of the block and speaking to people. Most will tell you that they remember her and all of her crossings with “Yes, in my back yard!” fervor. That’s what counts. The neighborhood kids looked to her as a terminal mom to all. And she was.

Those memories? They bear no price tag. Oh, home values in Fair Haven have quadrupled since the days of Dorothy Breckenridge’s sage crossings. Many can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood.

That’s OK. They have those golden legacy nuggets to cling to, and their value surpasses high property appraisal and the prospect of a good flip. Roots are what take hold in a community, not plywood, not sheetrock, not fences. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nobody ever eulogized a property value. Heart is what makes a home, a hometown.

Dorothy Breckenridge reached over the picket fence and spoke to people. Crossing over it all. Now, that’s a meaningful life — a priceless gift she gave her community for which it picked up the tab and ran.

The family expanded on that advice of hers in her obituary remembering that she always followed it up with “it costs nothing to be nice.” Nothing. Freebie, cheapskates! Call it the best hand-me-down around. A true splurge.

For years I have wanted to go to see Mrs. B and speak to her, thank her for every little thing she gave this child. To speak to her this time about how I , and, I know, so many others, squirreled away every CROOOSSSS, whistle, smile and wave into a small, but ever so valuable cache of memories made to pass on, to impart, to cross over into future generations of Fair Haven kids. My son, for one, was taught to and did stop to chat with the Knollwood crossing guard as a kid. The guard told me. He even taught him to whistle. A little tidbit of your legacy, Mrs. B.

Mrs. B’s 90th birthday was going to be the year I spoke to her after all these years of of trying to pay her and hometown people like her forward. It was all arranged with family. Then the pandemic happened. Then her birthday passed. The world has been in chaos. Yet, all I can think of lately is how I wanted to speak to her and tell her that she made it a better place with those priceless little things. Tell her that she spoke to me. I heard her.

I always look both ways before I cross. I still hesitate before setting my foot off that curb. And I forever will “CROOOOOSSSS!” to any other side knowing I came from a great place with people like her making it home.

So, YES, IN MY BACK YARD, Mrs. B! The memories of you feel like home in the soul. I’m always embracing them as you, crossed, now hold on tight to our beloved Parker kids on the other side …

Wait. I wonder if she crossed Mr. Measely over with a “Left, left, left, right, left … GO, YOU CHICKEN FAT, GO!” instead of “CROOOSSSSS!”

More about Mrs. B …

Dorothy Ayres Breckenridge was born on May 29, 1930 in Long Branch. She was raised in Red Bank. She attended Red Bank elementary schools and graduated from Red Bank Regional High School in 1947. 

She married Robert Breckenridge in 1950; and shortly after, they moved to Fair Haven where they raised their six children. 

She was preceded by her late husband Robert Breckenridge, who died in 1991, and her son, Tyrone Aidsa Breckenridge, who died in 2013.

Dorothy loved her heavenly father, she was a dedicated parishioner, during her younger years she attended the A.M.Z. Zion Church of Red Bank. After moving to Fair Haven she joined the Fisk Chapel A.M.E. church and later was a member of the Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church in Middletown.

John Caroli
BCS Wealth Management