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Cleo Pratt: Hempstead mom who opened her home to foster children

Cleo Pratt of Hempstead died of complications from

Cleo Pratt of Hempstead died of complications from COVID-19 on April 30 at age 83, her family said. Credit: Pratt family

Cleo Pratt’s children believed their mother’s cooking — from chicken cacciatore to banana pudding — was exceptional. There was just one stipulation to eating her delicious food, however: Never touch her sacred pots. It was a lesson her son Timothy Pratt learned the hard way.

One day, the pot on the stove was brimming with what looked like sauteed steak and onions, the house filling with its inviting aroma. His mother wasn’t in the kitchen, so he decided to sneak a bite.

“She didn’t say anything, so I figured she didn’t see,” said Timothy Pratt of Hempstead. “Within an instant of me biting it, I knew why she didn’t say anything: it was liver. If you have your mind fixed you're going to taste the best steak you’ve ever had in your life and you end up eating liver, your life will pass before your eyes. I heard her go, ‘That’s what you get for going in my pots.’ ”

Pratt, an avid cook known for making large Sunday dinners from recipes of her own creation, died of complications from COVID-19 on April 30 at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola. The Hempstead resident was 83.

Born on Nov. 3, 1936, Pratt grew up on a 100-acre farm in Dunbarton, South Carolina. It was there she learned the many proverbs she would later tell her children. One of her sayings, “You’re gonna need your tail come fly time,” literally referred to a horse or cow needing its tail when horseflies came around to bite. Figuratively, she was telling her children not to take anything for granted and, of course, to call their mother back.

She met her husband, Army Sgt. Clemon Pratt, while watching an Army football game at Mitchel Field in Uniondale in 1960. The pair got to know each other at an after-party, but a few days later, Clemon shipped out. They continued their relationship through letters, fell in love, and were married on April 28, 1963. Her husband died in 2002.

When their four kids were young, the couple opened their home to foster children, who each stayed for at least three years. They also welcomed kids participating in the Fresh Air Fund, an organization that provides summer experiences for children in underserved communities. Many of the kids remained in contact with Cleo Pratt after they left, phoning her weekly, stopping by the house and calling her “mom.”

“I think that was important to her because she had a troubled childhood,” said her daughter, Bridget Pratt of Hempstead. “She never wanted a child to go through that. She always wanted a child to have a caring, loving home.”

Although she was a homemaker for most of her life, she joined the workforce in the 1970s as a Tupperware saleswoman, later becoming a manager, while her husband was on strike with workers at New York Telephone Co.

“My mom would pick up and go to work to support the family, so that was part of her strength,” Timothy Pratt said. “She was right there for us. We didn’t miss a beat.”

Throughout her life, Pratt was always on the go. She was involved in several ministries, including those at her church of 57 years, Emanuel Baptist Church in Elmont. She also enjoyed traveling the globe with social groups and family and took part in a weekly bowling league at Garden City Bowl.

In addition to her son and daughter, she is survived by sons Victor and Sylas Pratt; daughters-in-law Simone, Barbara and Lisa; son-in-law, Hassani Shabazz; two sisters, Jesse Phelps and Mildred Wallace; 15 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

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