Someone shared with me a story about the late Middlesex County Commissioner Kenneth Armwood, which in part explains why his death today at the age of 46 hurt so many people in New Jersey.
Mr. Armwood understood and internalized loss in a way that made him strong for others when they suffered loss – and also made him vulnerable.
People – even the strongest – can only take on so many battles, and so many individual heartaches.
This person with whom I spoke about the late commissioner from Piscataway had felt the pain of losing a loved one, and Mr. Armwood consoled this person in a particularly strong, selfless and understanding way.
The commissioner had lost his beloved mother early in his life, and he turned that pain into a way to help people.
That’s why he stood out in this usually sinister and surly state, where public officials forsake the public and then laugh about getting the joke.
Mr. Armwood dedicated himself to people.
He cared in a way that taxed him beyond what ordinary public servants undertake, and placed a considerable encumbrance on his shoulders because he actually felt people’s pain.
A lot of people talk about the quality of feeling, but he actually didn’t know any other way.
The sense of loss made him want to help others, and over the course of a servant-leader life that started when he was 19, he was the kind of man who helped so many of them that he probably forgot to take care of himself.
His death today should remind the people of this state to pay attention to those in our midst who are drawn to public life not to gain attention or accolades or the perception of honor, or to gain revenge on someone or to make someone else seem small or unimportant – but to relieve someone else of a burden.
Those kinds of people are too busy helping others to know they may still be in a bind themselves.
Ken Armwood had the kind of charisma in a room that made you think he was a natural to advance in politics. I still remember walking into a crowded tavern in Washington, D.C. and seeing him smiling amid the blur of those faces, with a special sense of welcoming and kindness. With his substantive understanding of government and commitment to people, surely he was destined for great things.
But advancing politically and supposedly great things don’t often amount to the same thing.
Mr. Armwood was already engaged in great work.
We know that now by feeling and observing the depth of grief around the state today of those suffering because a strong and good and consequential man has gone down. You somewhere in New Jersey with a deeper sense of painful loss because you knew Ken Armwood and now he’s gone, your words of consolation for someone, or a kind deed, carry the energy today and irrepressible infectious spirit of a true leader, who wasn’t in it for himself.