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Citizen of the Year

Sarah Cromer has been named the Arizona Daily Sun 2013 female citizen of the year. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

Whenever folks in Flagstaff have fallen on hard times, needed a hand to hold in their darkest hours or simply wanted someone to talk to, there has always been one woman they could call on. That woman is Sarah Cromer.

The retired school teacher and lifelong volunteer has been quietly giving her time and money to the people of Flagstaff since she moved to the city from Bagdad in Yavapai County nearly 50 years ago to attend Arizona State College (now NAU).

“I started at a very young age trying to help people,” Cromer said. “I was lucky with that.”

For her efforts, Cromer has been named by a 2013 Arizona Daily Sun Citizen of the Year by a 24-member panel of previous honorees.

Cromer shaped the minds of thousands of local children during a teaching career that spanned more than four decades. Now that she is retired, she spends a lot of time doing charity and nonprofit work, whether it’s making sandwiches for the homeless at the Flagstaff Family Food Center, baking red velvet cakes for a Sheriff’s Office raffle or participating in the Flagstaff Elks Lodge Fairy Gown Mothers giveaway.

“I pay them to let me come and help,” Cromer said. “It’s wonderful. Young ladies that can’t afford a dress, I’ve seen them with tears streaming down their eyes, saying, ‘My dad said I couldn’t go to the prom and now I can.’”

Cromer also saw her own struggles as opportunities to help those in need. Thirty years ago, Cromer survived a difficult battle with cancer. She spent the next 12 years as an American Cancer Society Reach to Recovery volunteer consoling other women with cancer.

Cromer no longer works with the Cancer Society, but she still gets calls from people in the community who have received a cancer diagnosis. She said she tries to help in little ways, like making them dinners or going with them to the doctor.

“I still talk to people,” Cromer said. “If I can make it with as much metastasis as I had to my lymph system, then it’s sort of like motivation for them.”

Cromer has received many honors for her community service and her commitment to Flagstaff school children. But the people closest to her say the acts of kindness Cromer has done out of the limelight are what make her truly inspiring.

Tim McCullough was in Cromer’s class when she started teaching in 1968 at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic School, which is now called San Francisco de Asis. Now, some 45 years later, he and his former classmates still reminisce about “Mrs. C.”

“We all say the same thing: She was my favorite teacher ever,” McCullough said. “She really, really cared.”

Cromer left Nativity when then-Superintendent of Schools Sturgeon Cromer, her future father-in-law, gave her a contract to teach students on the Southside.

“He couldn’t have done anything better for me because I loved the kids,” Cromer said. “The parents greeted me with open arms and I’m still part of the families down there. We love them and we keep up with them. I felt very, very fortunate to spend my whole career there.”

Cromer spent six years at Kinsey Elementary and 35 years at South Beaver Elementary teaching first, third and fifth grade, and remedial reading for grades one through six. When McCullough’s oldest son ended up in Cromer’s class at South Beaver, he found out she had used her own money to pay for several children who could not afford to go on an overnight field trip to the Phoenix Zoo. It made him realize she had been quietly helping local children behind the scenes for decades.

“It’s constant,” McCullough said. “Who knows how much she’s done over the years.”

Thomas Elementary School Principal Frank Garcia worked with Sarah and her husband Mike Cromer when he was a young teacher at South Beaver Elementary and considers them both his mentors. He said he has seen Cromer do many acts of kindness.

“Sarah is very much a perfectionist and is very driven and likes to do things for people,” Garcia said. “That perfectionism and drive usually ends up being for the benefit of others.”

Cromer calls herself “the luckiest person in the world” because she got to teach on the Southside for so many years. Her home is filled with pictures of her former students and their families. She still gets fired up when she hears anyone disparaging kids from the Southside.

“There are as many success stories on the Southside as the rest of the town,” Cromer said. “They’re wonderful. A lot of times, people equate intelligence with socioeconomic status. When you see somebody poor, some people just think automatically they’re dumb and that is not the case.”

Cromer still keeps up in touch with her former students, many of whom now have children and grandchildren of their own. She is constantly jetting off to their graduations, quinceañeras and weddings.

Over the years, Cromer has also written countless letters to help her former students get into college, obtain scholarships and find good jobs.

“With all the students she’s taught from 1968 until now, there’s a comfort level,” said Mike Cromer. “If it’s a girl or a boy or a young man or a woman that she taught, they know they have a friend. They call Sarah a lot of times just to talk to her and she helps them. She talks to them.”

Cromer continues to help local students as a member of the Raymond Educational Foundation and the Alpha Delta Kappa international honorary organization of women educators, of which she has been a member for 37 years. Both organizations provide college scholarships for students.

She is also Alpha Delta Kappa’s liaison to the Ronald McDonald Foundation in Phoenix. Cromer’s oldest son, who is a doctor, told her she needed her own business card that said “Sarah Cromer, Volunteer, PRN,” which means “as needed.”

Cromer said people do not have to do something big to make a difference.

“You do what you can,” Cromer said. “If everybody did a little bit, it would be a better world.”

Michelle McManimon can be reached at 556-2261 or MMcManimon@azdailysun.com.

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