The 1800 block of Willington Street appears to be just like any other block outside Temple’s campus. Many of its buildings are inhabited by Temple students living in two- or three-bedroom apartments.
Halfway down the block, in a home adorned with two pianos and couches covered with stuffed animals, lives 79-year-old Ivory E. Thompson, fondly known as Miss Ivory to the Temple students who make up her neighborhood. She has lived on the block for nearly 40 years and has made an effort to keep the neighborhood clean during that time.
Thompson has received recognition from the members of the local police station and neighbors, but Thompson insists that she is not looking for any sort of praise.
“I’m not trying to gain a medal,” she said.
Five years after she moved to North Philadelphia, her late granddaughter, who Thompson lovingly referred to as “Muffin,” was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and was subject to regular blood-sugar monitoring and routine insulin injections. Muffin was 3 years old at the time of the diagnosis. Thompson was determined to keep her granddaughter safe and healthy without limiting the child to playing only inside the house. After having a small gate placed in front of her house, Thompson decided to sweep the street, and she has done so ever since.
“The man next door used to work all the time. He was 75, and I would say, ‘How can this man do all this at 75?’ Well, I guess God could show me better than He could tell me, by me being my age and working to the same capacity he worked,” Thompson said about her 34 years of making Willington a cleaner street.
Thompson has stories to tell and has, by her own admittance, “been to hell and back” in her lifetime, but said “it’s not about how you start. It’s how you finish.”
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Thompson is the youngest of eight children: four boys and four girls. Her mother was a school teacher, who died when Thompson was a toddler. Her father, a Baptist minister, died six years after her mother passed away.
Thompson was placed in foster care at 9 years old. A teacher at Thompson’s elementary school began to notice she was being abused by her first foster mother. Soon after, she was provided a new foster family. Thompson’s second foster mother, who at the time operated a speakeasy, gave Thompson her first taste of alcohol at 14 years old.
Having spent more than five years with negligent foster mothers, 15-year-old Thompson quit school and began to make money for herself doing “domestic jobs.”
She recounted spending time in Atlantic City, N.J., and Rockaway Beach in Queens, N.Y., working for whoever would pay her decent wages and put a roof over her head.
As a young woman, she also worked at Graduate Hospital, which was once located at 18th and Lombard streets. She also folded clean cloth diapers at a local diaper launderer.
By the time she was 25, Thompson had two daughters and two sons. She now has “numerous” grandchildren and great-grandchildren, four of whom are deceased, including “Muffin,” who died at age 22.
When she was 49, Thompson spent two years in seminary school at Philadelphia College of Bible, now known as Philadelphia Biblical University.
She was widowed by her first husband, whom she married in 1954. Fifty years later, Thompson married a longtime friend, who passed away in 2006, only two years after the couple married.
Today, Thompson continues to help keep the street clean for Temple students and other residents of the block. She reminds students to keep lids on their garbage cans and to keep the trash bags from overflowing onto the clean sidewalk.
“I make sure [students] don’t get no fines,” Thompson said.
She said she has a “nice connection” to her young neighbors.
“I like them all. I haven’t had any trouble with them. I like them very much,” she said. “They’re always ‘Miss Ivory’ this and ‘Oh, Miss Ivory’ that.”
Thompson does not simply watch out for the kids on her block, some of whom are nearly 60 years younger than she. Instead, Miss Ivory fosters and maintains a friendship with them, until they graduate, at which point she is not sure when or if she will see them again.
“I hate to see them go.”
Chelsea Calhoun can be reached at email@example.com.