At 18 years old, best friends Lorraine Whitaker and Delores McMorrin were unexpectedly sent home from work after hearing news that the city of Newark was in an uproar. On that day in July, the two young women left their summer jobs at Cleveland Elementary School and headed home – where they would be forced to stay during the next couple of days. Just blocks away, fighting, looting and arson had begun to take over New Jersey’s largest city, in the historic event known as the 1967 Newark Riots.
“We were working in the playground and our director said that he heard that people were fighting down the street,” said Whitaker. “He told us: ‘you girls go home because something is starting down on Springfield Avenue. Go directly home,’ he said, ‘because people are fighting and burning.’”
At the time, Whitaker and McMorrin had just recently graduated from West Side High School and admit that they were not politically active. They understood that the Newark Riot was sparked by the racial disparities in housing, jobs and education. But, it wasn’t until the newly established Educational Opportunity Fund Program (EOF) provided them with the opportunity to go to college that the two began to understand the importance and need of higher education within their community and how access to it would change their lives forever.
In a fortunate twist of fate, the best friends are being sent home from work once again – this time, they are retiring together.
For nearly 25 years, Whitaker and McMorrin have worked side by side as counselors for the Educational Opportunity Fund Program (EOF)at Montclair State University – the same program that allowed them to go to college in 1968 as first generation college students.
Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, the best friends tell how it was unlikely for people from their community to go to college. In fact, because college was not an expectation, it was common for people to go straight to work after graduating from high school, which is exactly what McMorrin did before she heard about the EOF program.
“I went to work for Bell Telephone Company,” said McMorrin. “My mother was a single mom raising five children on her own, she didn’t know nothing about college. All she wanted me to do was graduate high school.”
Throughout their years as EOF counselors, the best friends have been provided with the opportunity to pay it forward – helping students in the same way that they were helped when they were students of the first EOF class. As counselors who are required to have monthly meetings with each student on their case load, they were both able to bond with many of their students – guiding them with their financial, academic and personal issues.
Mildred Kroung, a graduating senior had the opportunity to have both Whitaker and McMorrin as her counselor. Whitaker, who was Kroung’s original counselor decided that she would benefit more from working with McMorrin, who is also a professor in the legal studies department at Montclair State and could better guide Kroung with her interest in law. Despite the swap of counselors, Kroung said that she benefited from connecting with both women.
“They’re both great,” said Kroung. “They’re both like mother figures on campus. Whenever Dr. McMorrin wasn’t there, Mrs. Whitaker was and when Mrs. Whitaker wasn’t there, Dr. McMorrin was. I’m going to miss them.”
In all their years of counseling at Montclair State, both Whitaker and McMorrin say that the students are what they will miss the most once they retire. Although being EOF counselors has been their profession for over two decades, it is the genuine care that they have for their students that has allowed them to form relationships that often last beyond graduation.
“I have a student who called me last week from 20 years ago,” said Whitaker. “There was another student, a young man who came to the award ceremony last week. He was my student. He looked at me and I looked at him, and I called his name. He couldn’t believe that I would remember him after all these years.”
When asked what EOF means to her, Whitaker said, “It is a revolutionary kind of thing. The ability to go to school – that’s great. But the real part of EOF is what we do at the counseling level and at the relationship level.” That, she says is the most important thing about EOF. “It really is a family.”
The soon-to-be former EOF counselors had no idea that they would end up working together, especially since they went to different colleges. While Whitaker studied sociology and psychology at Upsala Lutheran College of East Orange, New Jersey, her close friend, McMorrin, was away at Rutgers-Newark, where she majored in political science. Although the two were no longer walking distance away from each other, they managed to remain in contact.
“I would go visit [Whitaker] and I used to think [Upsala College] was so far away,” McMorrin said chuckling as she remembered the struggles of getting around on public transportation. “I didn’t even know about Upsala College until Loraine went and, when I would go up, it was like, ‘wow this is nice.’”
McMorrin also shared that she still has letters that she and Whitaker wrote each other from when they were in college.
As of today, their offices in Webster Hall are two doors down from each other – a coincidence that would have never been made possible if Whitaker didn’t apply for the job after her friend, McMorrin, told her about the open position.
Although the days leading up to their retirement are quickly approaching, EOF Director Dr. Daniel Jean continue to insists that their legacy will last even after they retire from the program.
“They are both legends in the area of higher education,” said Jean. “I think their wisdom, their expertise and their passion for students will be missed. Combined, they’ve impacted thousands of students. It’s going to be sad to see them go.”
Although she is retiring from her position as an EOF counselor, McMorrin plans to continue teaching in the political science and law department at Montclair State. While she has worked side by side with her best friend for over two decades, she’s been a member of the Red Hawk community for 30 years.
When asked of her plans after retirement, McMorrin said she will also be coaching for the New Jersey Orators, an organization that teaches young children how to give oral presentations, traveling and visiting her son who lives in Atlanta and is set to get married in Jamaica this June.
Whitaker, who is invited to the wedding will also be making a trip to Jamaica and insists that, although she doesn’t know of her other plans after she retires, she knows that she won’t be bored.
“I have to find something where I can continue to work with young people. I’ll find something,” she said adding how she has a lot of family, including her retired husband Gregory Whitaker, to keep her company. A resident of Montclair, New Jersey, Whitaker won’t be too far away and said she intends on supporting the program after she’s retired.