A Life Lived: Minnie Lee Cheeks

Minnie Lee Cheeks adopted six kids and raised more than 20 foster children. Her home in Middle Township's Whitesboro section was also a magnet for neighborhood kids.

Photo provided by family

Minnie Lee Cheeks could never have a baby.

But that couldn’t stop her from having a big family.

Cheeks, a former Army nurse and officer who lived in Middle Township’s Whitesboro section, died last month at 93. She had one son and five daughters.

That, though, is just how many kids she formally adopted. She also raised at least 20 foster children over the years, and they were hardly the only kids around her home, said daughter Jacqueline D’Amico, of Egg Harbor Township.

“Our house was the house where everybody came,” D’Amico said, adding that one big draw at the Cheeks’ home was the neighborhood’s only pool. “In the summer, we’d have like 50 bicycles in the yard. ... Every time I came home, it seemed like there was another kid in the house.”

Minnie and Bob Cheeks didn’t start their family until Minnie was in her mid-30s. She kept adopting even when the marriage split up and Bob, a Hoboken fire captain, died in 1978. Minnie was 63 when she adopted her last two kids — birth sisters, ages 1 and 3.

As a young nurse after World War II, Minnie ruptured four disks in her back trying to move an obese patient. She couldn’t work again — and couldn’t have babies of her own with her condition, her adopted daughters said. She wore a heavy back brace the rest of her life, and couldn’t walk at all her last 10 years.

When they started their family, Bob and Minnie lived in North Jersey for his job. But they bought a bit of land to build a summer house in Whitesboro.

“My dad didn’t want us spending summers in the city,” said Michelle Cheeks, 55, of Mobile, Ala., the oldest daughter. “We’d leave Hoboken the last day of school and stay in Whitesboro until school started again.”

That went on until 1973, when Minnie and Bob split. They stayed amicable, but Minnie and the kids stayed in Whitesboro when that summer ended.

Minnie didn’t just worry about her own kids. She had a friend who ran a local job-training agency, which led Minnie to friendships with politicians and power-brokers from throughout Cape May County, including several freeholders.

“I don’t know how she got to be so influential, but people used to call my mom the unofficial mayor of Whitesboro,” Michelle said, adding that Minnie was known as an advocate for better medical and mental-health services, among other causes she cared about.

There was much more to Minnie’s life, but she was apparently a natural at being a mother.

“She liked to tell us, ‘All my children are special because I chose them,’” Michelle said.

A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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