LILLIAN SANTIAGO was a well known and civically active resident of North Camden, who lived in the 900 block of Cedar Street. She passed away at the age of 64 on September 26, 2006.

Camden Courier-Post * September 28, 2006

Scrappy Camden Activist Dies

Courier-Post Staff

Lillian Santiago, the Camden activist who fought to turn around her city with the same fierce spirit she used to turn around her life, died Tuesday at Cooper University Hospital.

The 64-year-old North Camden resident had been ill for several weeks.

"It's a huge loss for Camden," said Sue Brennan, executive director of the community group Fairview Main Street, and one of several friends who were with Santiago at the end.

"I was holding her hand and telling her, "Lillian, so many people love you,' " Brennan said. "She knew."

Peppery and pious, tiny in stature but tough as any Camden street, Santiago often spoke publicly (in a pungent, piping voice) of her recovery from alcoholism and addiction. She was known for chasing drug dealers and their customers from near her home on the 900 block of Cedar Street, which is in one of the rougher sections of one of the city's toughest neighborhoods.

On Wednesday, Santiago's next-door neighbor James Gaynor gently swept litter from a tree well near her beige, two-story rowhouse.

"I'm trying to clean a little bit of this up for her, because people will be coming by," said Gaynor, who's 53 and unemployed. "Anybody on this street will tell you, she was a good person. She did a lot for our neighborhood. Everybody is going to miss her."

Sister Helen Cole, administrator of the North Camden-based Guadaloupe Family Services, knew Santiago for 15 years.

"She really brought people together," Cole said. "She organized block parties. She would talk to everybody on the block. She'd go door-to-door. And she really did chase the drug dealers."

Sgt. David Kelley, who along with Cole and Brennan was at Santiago's bedside when she died, said even the sight of a dealer's gun wouldn't dissuade her.

Santiago surely knew more than a thing or two about the streets. In a 2003 Courier-Post interview, she described with startling frankness her sad upbringing (a childhood fire left much of her body permanently scarred, she said), tumultuous first marriage (she gave up her only child, never to see her again) and decades of drinking and drugging (she panhandled, hustled, and did time in jail).

But 14 years ago, she started attending Holy Name Church and "quit cold turkey," Cole said. After that, the church "became her anchor," in Cole's words, and Santiago would rarely go anywhere without her rosary beads -- and her menthol smokes.

Santiago also began to get involved in the community, particularly the Camden Neighborhood Renaissance organization. And despite -- or perhaps, because of -- her troubled past, she became a champion for stronger law enforcement in the city.

"She loved the Camden Police Department," former Chief Robert Allenbach said. "She had had a lot of run-ins with the police, but she transformed her life. She just swung 180 degrees."

Allenbach, who considered Santiago a close friend, added, "everybody liked her. Everybody enjoyed her enthusiasm and her comments. She'd work with anybody, and she'd be right up front."

Or behind-the-scenes. According to Kelley, one of the best-loved of what Cole calls "Lillian stories" involves a derelict boat in back of Santiago's home. After repeated entreaties to City Hall and the police produced no results, a 9-1-1 call came in about an abandoned boat blocking Cedar Street.

"I don't want to dime her out," Kelley said, "but how that little woman got that big boat out there, I'll never know."

On Cedar Street on Wednesday, a couple of teddy bears and two Catholic altar candles had been arranged on the sidewalk outside Santiago's home.

By midafternoon, one of the candles had gone out.

The other still burned.