SOUTH TOMS RIVER – When Oscar L. Cradle Sr. first met the woman who would become his wife, he was 13 and she was a few years younger. He told her he was going to marry her. She didn’t believe him. She told him he was crazy.
But they did marry. They had a baby boy. They were happy. But unfortunately, not for long. Cradle was only 22 when she died of hepatitis. He “went bonkers,” in his words.
That was the beginning of his 21-year battle with heroin addiction.
“I had King Kong on my back,” he said. “By the grace of God, it’s been years.”
Cradle, the 71-year-old outgoing mayor, says his faith and the strength of his mother, Agnes, whom he describes as “stern but supportive,” helped keep him from going back to drugs when he got out of prison.
He has no problem discussing his past drug addiction, now long in the past. He hopes it helps others to learn that they too can beat addiction. He worked “straight through” his time on drugs.
Cradle began his political career as a Borough Councilman back in 1996. Irked that then-borough officials did not come through with a promised playground in the Center Homes section, a friend encouraged him to run for office.
“He said, ‘They are not going to listen,’” Cradle recalled. “He said ‘You have to run.’”
“We got the playground built,” the mayor said with smile.
Cradle was elected mayor in November of 2014. He decided against seeking a second term and instead retiring to work on other projects.
His family moved to South Toms River in the early 1950s, when there were lots of egg farms and no Garden State Parkway.
Cradle acknowledges that South Toms River has had a less than stellar reputation in past years.
It was known as the “stepchild of Toms River,” he said.
As an official, he often kept tabs on who was doing or selling drugs in the Center Homes section, where his family lived. Things were so bad, he had to walk his mother to her car as she headed to go to work, just so she would be safe, he said.
He often confronted offenders, told them he knew what they were doing and advised them to get out of town. At times he carried a baseball bat with him. He didn’t use it, but he always had it with him.
“It took us about five years, but we got it off the street,” he said.
And South Toms River is looking at a much-improved ratable base in the near future, he said.
A 360-unit condo building and a hotel was just approved by the Planning Board to be built behind the Wawa on Dover Road. Plans are also in the works to purchase the Miller marina on Route 166, improve the shopping plaza to the east of the marina and the defunct motorcycle shop across the street, Cradle said.
And just because he is no longer a public official, it doesn’t mean he won’t be at the Borough Council meetings, just on the other side of the microphone. Now he’ll have more time for one of his passions – history. He began interviewing elderly South Toms River residents years ago. He has a multitude of old area photos that people have given him. He wants to write a book.