Zelma Evelyn, 90, Cambridge city worker, volunteer

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / August 19, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

The night before she died at age 90 last week, Zelma Evelyn phoned a friend who was about to give birth.

“She called this young woman, who was on the way to the hospital, and she prayed with her,’’ said Mrs. Evelyn’s daughter-in-law, Lula of Framingham.

To the end, Mrs. Evelyn was a source of comfort and strength to many, her family said. She died in her sleep Aug. 12 of cardiac arrest while staying at her son’s home in Framingham. Her friend’s child was born the following day.

Mrs. Evelyn worked at Cambridge City Hall for so long that she was once known as the city’s unofficial mayor. Her career spanned more than 40 years.

She worked primarily in the auditor’s office and finished her career as an assistant to Kenneth Reeves, the first black mayor in the city’s history, who held office from 1992 to 1996.

Reeves called her a “pillar of the community’’ known for her volunteer work and her support for her church, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“She was a friend like no other friend,’’ said Reeves, now a city councilor. “She was the kind of person who inspired you and supported you.’’

When she retired from City Hall, more than 600 people filled a hotel ballroom for the party. Palm trees and pyramids decorated the room for the bash’s theme, “Zelma, Queen of the Nile.’’

Mrs. Evelyn left her mark on the city in several ways. She helped found the Black Heritage Trail and served on the boards of the YWCA, the Margaret Fuller House, the Hildebrand Center, and the Henry Buckner School. The Cambridge NAACP gave her its Drum Major for Justice Award.

Two years ago, the city named the intersection of Walden and Garden streets after Mrs. Evelyn and her late husband, Frank, who died in 1995 at age 74. They were married 49 years and had lived on Walden Street since the early 1960s.

“She was honored and humbled by it,’’ her son, Robert of Framingham, said of the city’s designation of Evelyn Square. “She was really happy about the acknowledgment.’’

Born Zelma Olivia Bradshaw in Cambridge, Mrs. Evelyn “was generous with her time and her treasure,’’ Reeves said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do without her.’’

Mrs. Evelyn worshiped at St. Paul AME Church for 55 years and was on the church’s board of trustees for 41 years.

She was the church’s historian and wrote publications marking the historic church’s 105th, 110th, and 120th anniversaries. She also chaired the church’s building program and was a member of its Missionary Society for 39 years.

Mrs. Evelyn was a gifted writer, according to friends. Many encouraged her to write a memoir, but Mrs. Evelyn was too busy helping others and listening to their stories to write her own, they said.

“She had a wonderful sense of humor, and she always tried to encourage people,’’ her son Robert said. “She always had a good word to say to people.’’

Mrs. Evelyn was also known for her hats. She liked to wear dramatic chapeaux in bright colors matching her stylish outfits, her family said.

Friends sought out her wisdom and knew she could be counted on to visit when someone was sick. “Whenever you’d go to visit somebody who is sick, they would tell you she had been there,’’ Reeves said. “But you would never hear it from her.’’

Mrs. Evelyn, one of nine children, outlived all her siblings. Her parents, Reginald and Estelle, emigrated from Barbados.

Kathleen Cummings of Somerville - the daughter of Mrs. Evelyn’s oldest sibling, Ivy - said she grew up in the same house with Zelma and knew from childhood that she was unique.

“She always seemed to reach out to me, and it was always with such a tender spirit, even as a child,’’ Cummings said. “People just seemed to be drawn to her. I found out through the years how she has reached out on all levels to so many.’’

Mrs. Evelyn graduated from Cambridge Latin School in 1939. Her early jobs included working at HP Hood milk company, her son said. Later, she scored well on the civil service exam and became one of the first black employees at City Hall.

In June, more than 100 people gathered at the Phillips Old Colony House in Dorchester to surprise Mrs. Evelyn on her 90th birthday. The room was decorated with fancy hats.

“We pulled it off,’’ Lula said. “There was family there from all over. She loved it.’’

In addition to her son, Mrs. Evelyn leaves a grandson and many nieces and nephews. Services will be held at noon today at St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge. Burial will be in Cambridge Cemetery.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at