Loose Ends 9/6: Labor Day: A ‘unique’ celebration of Gale Cantu and Plainsboro

Gale and Pete Cantu at the Sycamore Tree

By Pam Hersh

As a journalist, I rarely use the word “unique.”

It means the one and only, and I am reluctant to say with certainty that anyone or anything is unique. As a friend, I love using the word “unique” to describe someone I have admired enormously over the past several decades.

Gale Cantu is unique – from the perspective of both a journalist and a friend. I am fairly comfortable saying that she is the one and only resident of Plainsboro who was born in Plainsboro – in a farmhouse on Plainsboro turf in 1940, not on Princeton turf at Princeton Hospital, when it was on Witherspoon Street in Princeton. 

As such, Gale Thompson Cantu is the poster child for Plainsboro’s ongoing Centennial Celebration. If there are any other Plainsboro residents who were born in Plainsboro, please let me know. Since Princeton hospital now is located in Plainsboro, there indeed may be a few very young Plainsboro residents who were born in Plainsboro. 

My journalist ethics then would require me to change the statement to: Gale Cantu is unique, because she is the only resident who was born in Plainsboro and who has been married to the current mayor of Plainsboro, Peter Cantu for 58 years. Now that is unique and remarkable.

Gale was born on Sept. 2, 1940 – coincidently and appropriately Labor Day in 1940. Labor Day 2019 was Gale Cantu’s 79th birthday. Making Gale’s description irrefutably unique would be the following: Gale Cantu is the only resident of Plainsboro, married to the mayor of Plainsboro, born in Plainsboro on Labor Day to Rose Thompson, also born in Plainsboro in 1920, one year after the town’s incorporation. 

“As Pete likes to say, 1920 was a time in Plainsboro’s history when the cows outnumbered the people (1,200),” said Gale, who pointed out that the current people population is 23,000. And most of the cows have gone on to greener pastures. 

Although Gale worked as a medical secretary for a Princeton physician Dr. Tan for a number of years, she considered her professional, albeit unpaid, job as that of helping Mayor Cantu and the other town leaders in their efforts to make the town of Plainsboro a “truly wonderful place to live. The remuneration has been witnessing how the town has evolved over the years – and changed in a thoughtful and positive way,” she said.  

It goes without saying, said Gale, that her role as wife, mother (two children) and grandmother (two grandchildren) has been her first priority, but her job as a citizen working to better the community has kept her very busy. 

In addition to her volunteer efforts on behalf of the schools, library, open space and historic preservation, her “supporting-the-leadership” volunteer job duties have included: canvassing, putting up posters, handing out fliers, cooking, hosting numerous political gatherings, attending meetings, listening to the residents, raising issues that needed to be addressed, creating content for fliers and newsletters.

Aware that is it not so trendy these days for a woman to admit that she cherishes a supporting, rather than a leadership role, Gale remains unapologetic about her commitment to her job to support and encourage the leader of the community and enable him to succeed in that role. 

“I am smart enough to have accepted the marriage proposal of a man who ended up caring about this town as much as I do. We share and have shared a common passion –  to transform the community in a way to sustain it in the future, while preserving not only its open space, but also the remarkable qualities from its past. … I love the quilt of people from all over the world that Plainsboro has become and all of the exceptional and innovative corporations based here. But I also am very proud of Plainsboro’s fascinating farming (particularly dairy farming) history, focus on education, and an emphasis on community and looking out for one another,” she said. 

Gale was particularly pleased that Mayor Cantu insisted on the preservation of the sycamore tree on property of the Forrestal Center-based Munich Re. The oldest of seven children, Gale was born in the farmhouse that overlooked that sycamore tree.

“The farmhouse at the Silver Farm was down a long lane (now College Road) off of Schalks Crossing Road. Our family rented the house –  we never owned any part of the property; we were poor, but actually very rich. I have such fond memories of growing up there. When Forrestal Center acquired the property that is now the corporate headquarters of Munich Re, Pete was most emphatic that the sycamore tree had to remain,” she said.

Her childhood memories include how she met Pete Cantu – a “sophisticated, city” kid, shortly after he came to town.

“I was 15 and often went horseback riding with my girlfriend on Plainsboro Road. I thought I was Dale Evans,” said Gale when recalling one of those excursions after she and her girlfriend stopped for a snack at a luncheonette. “I met this nice looking guy – on a bike not on a horse. When he was 15 years old, Pete moved to Plainsboro from Bergen County and got a summer job irrigating potatoes. At this first meeting and at subsequent meetings, I was very impressed with how polite he was – he never cursed. He also was very interested in learning all about this rural community in spite of being a city kid – and in spite of the fact he was unable to sleep at night, because it was ‘too quiet.’” 

Gale said that Pete, who has been a member of the Plainsboro Township Committee since 1975 and mayor for more than 38 years, had and has no ‘off’ switch, when it comes to doing what is best for the residents of Plainsboro.

“His mind always is churning, problem solving, thinking of better ways to accomplish the town’s goals. He got involved in local government to inspire better land use planning and development. He always saw himself as a public servant, not a politician,” said Gale.

She admitted the many challenges of being married to someone so immersed in local government and service to the community, but from her perspective, her husband’s drive was always going in the right direction – and from my perspective, that’s unusual these days, if not unique.