The first thought that crossed the minds of Roanoke City Council members when Estelle McCadden walked into the room was “Oh no.”
She attended hour-long town hall meetings to tell council members what to do, berate them for what they weren’t doing and offer solutions and ways to help, Mayor Sherman Lea said. .
“I really like Estelle because she was a sensible person,” Lea said. “She would bark at you if you weren’t doing it right or if she felt you could do better.”
McCadden, who founded the Melrose-Rugby Neighborhood Forum and the Virginia Statewide Neighborhood Conference, died Jan. 31 at age 95.
She taught home economics in area elementary and middle schools before working at William Fleming High School and retiring in 1988. Thereafter, McCadden immersed herself in neighborhood work and started advocating for the people of northwest Roanoke, especially the Melrose-Rugby neighborhood.
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The Melrose-Rugby neighborhood is bounded on the north by Andrews Road and Syracuse Avenue, on the east by 10th Street, on the south by Orange and Melrose Avenues, and on the west by Lafayette Boulevard. It was one of Roanoke’s first suburbs and became predominantly African American beginning in the 1960s.
McCadden acknowledged rising crime rates and more students dropping out of school. She founded the organization in 1989 to bring neighbors together to solve these problems.
Over the years, she has fought for better housing, food availability and medical centers for her neighborhood. Eventually, McCadden expanded his efforts to create the Virginia Statewide Neighborhood Conference, where leaders from across the Commonwealth would come together to address issues they all shared.
“We lost a great soldier in this community, a great soldier who made an impact,” Lea said. “We all die at some point and the question comes back to ‘What have you done to improve your community? And that’s a question Estelle can answer.
McCadden was born in Rocky Mount and moved to Roanoke when she was 10 years old. Her father became pastor of the Jerusalem Baptist Church in 1936, and she had been a member ever since. When her eldest son, Mac, was 3, she moved to the Melrose-Rugby neighborhood.
Mac McCadden said his mother attended baseball games while he worked as an umpire and he could always hear her voice in a crowd of over 30,000 people.
He was a direct person who could charm anyone. Once she had settled on something, she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“She was the only person I knew who could tell you to go to hell and you would say thank you,” Mac McCadden said. “I’m 72 and I want to grow up and be like her.”
This passion, this charm and this direct way of speaking allowed Estelle McCadden to accomplish all that she did. She received Roanoke’s Mother of the Year in 1994, Citizen of the Year in 2008, and the 2019 Women of Achievement Award from the Girl Scouts of Virginia Skyline Council.
“I think we are better off as a city because of Estelle McCadden’s commitment and dedication,” Lea said. “These will be tough shoes to fill, but hopefully someone takes on that role and continues this great work.”