Paulsboro's biggest booster still going strong

Red Raiders red and white figures prominently in Irma Stevenson's life.
Red Raiders red and white figures prominently in Irma Stevenson's life. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 14, 2014

Irma Stevenson exudes Paulsboro.

If it's not her red-and-white Red Raiders shirt, complemented by red polished nails and a ladybug watch, maybe it's the borough-happy knickknacks filling her East Jefferson Street home. Or a comprehensive list of boards and committees she has sat on - more than can fit on a notepad-size sheet of paper.

Perhaps it's the infectious and signature open-mouth laugh that she's put on display for 25 years as cohost of Eye on Paulsboro, a Web and local cable TV series dedicated to the two-square-mile borough.

"Wherever Irma Stevenson is, she shines," said Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli, Eye on Paulsboro creator and host. "She's the youngest adult I know."

Aside from being Burzichelli's chipper sidekick behind the spectacles, Irma sits on the borough's Land Use Board, is a Board of Education member, and is associate editor of the community newspaper, the Record Today. Many know her simply as Irma.

Now, at 74, Irma has one more Paulsboro item to add to her resumé: a Paulsboro High School diploma.

Last month, Superintendent Walter Quint and Irma's fellow board members bestowed on her an honorary degree - bringing an exceptional life in the industrial borough full circle. While she has long considered herself a Class of 1957 alumna, she did not complete her final year at the school.

That was news to Quint, who hatched the plan to give Irma the degree. "You have someone who is so proud of the school and who has made such a contribution," he said, "and you just know you're doing the right thing."

When Quint became superintendent for the first time in 1991, Irma was already beginning to develop her local celebrity as the Eye on Paulsboro regular.

'A lot of potential'

The half-hour show - the 1989 brainchild of then-Paulsboro Chamber of Commerce president Burzichelli, before he was mayor, and producer William Crane - has documented everything from Fourth of July parades to Burzichelli's colonoscopy to the aftermath of the 2012 train derailment (which occurred on the Mantua Creek in Irma's backyard). It's a community newsletter gone video, plus some.

"The town was sort of struggling, but you could also see there was a lot of potential," Burzichelli said of the show's origins.

Burzichelli needed a partner who had pride in the community - someone who knew the town and its people. Irma came recommended. "They realize she's their neighbor," Burzichelli said.

Typically recorded twice each month, the show is shown throughout the county on Channel 97 and on YouTube.

Burzichelli said there's no formal budget. Advertisements help cover production costs for Fred Boughter, a part-time Gloucester County Institute of Technology video production assistant who serves as the cameraman, director, and editor, with help from an assistant, Amy Cooke. Burzichelli hosts. Irma is Irma.

In each episode, Irma concludes with her segment, "Community Notes," rattling off residents' birthdays, anniversaries, and town events while offering the camera glances. She's known to inject her two cents on matters of the day.

In February, she remarked on water contamination in the borough and other environmental concerns that have challenged the town: "John, we're the Red Raiders," she told him, full of pride. "We fight anything, we come back from everything. Train derailment, chemicals, we'll still be here on the map."

The show is unscripted, and there's never a second take, Burzichelli said. Irma usually gets a day's notice before filming.

"He knows not to call me Wednesday morning because that's when I get my hair done," she said with a laugh. "A couple of times I've had to wear hats."

The duo typically film on location - in schools, churches, businesses, beside the Delaware River. "The only thing I wouldn't do is climb in the casket when we were at the funeral home," she joked. "We just enjoy it."

Born in Camden's Whitman Park neighborhood in 1939, Irma has lived in Paulsboro since she was 3 months old - save for a year-and-a-half stint in Clarksboro and Gibbstown ("and regretted every minute of it," she quipped).

While she's watched kids and grandkids complete high school to "Pomp and Circumstance," Irma longed for the same for herself. After completing her junior year, she and her to-be husband, Walt, learned they were expecting Brenda, the first of five children. She did not return to finish her senior year.

"Everything is planned. That's my belief," she said, throwing in an Irma-style joke: "All they ever taught then in health class was how to bandage your finger."

Last month, 57 years after her class graduated, Irma finally sported a white cap and gown and walked with the Class of 2014. Some of her children, nine grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren came to see.

"I think the main thing was that my mom was there to see me," Irma said. Her mother, Irma Kandle, 93, sat in the front row.

"It was emotional for all of us," Quint said. "Irma's graduation was derailed at a different time with different norms. I think the amazing part is she didn't let it hold her back."

Boundless

Irma went on to obtain a GED, work as a construction secretary, and, at 42, become a nurse. She worked more than 20 years as a medical-surgical nurse before picking up overnight shifts as a home health care nurse.

A tassel with a gold "14," diploma, and congratulatory cards sat on her kitchen table last week - where a miniature picnic table reading "Paulsboro Red Raiders" holds the salt and pepper.

Councilman Gary Stevenson, Irma's son, said his mother's energy was boundless. "She might get one or two hours of sleep a day," he said.

"She epitomizes what Paulsboro pride is," he said. "The graduation, that just topped it off."

How long will the show go on?

Irma smiled. "As long as I say to John, 'Let's do it one more year.' "


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917 @AJFichera

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