“A light exists in Spring
Not present on the year
At any other period—
When March is scarcely here.”
The parade banner drapes across the main drag, directly in front of the local High School entrance in downtown Nutley. It just seems to hang there, suspended in air, and mostly unnoticed I would surmise.
It could just as easily be a posting for a county fair or an announcement for a 4-H club. Then again, I’m not sure they have those kinds of events in that town.
But, what Nutley Township does have is an annual St. Patrick’s Day March. That is what the banner is for, after all. And, every year when I notice that streamer flapping in the wind over Franklin Avenue, I’m reminded of two memorable moments from the past.
First, the image of Republican Assemblyman John V. Kelly standing on the steps of the old Nutley Savings & Loan, site of the grandstand for parades of a by-gone era. That’s how I remember him.
With bagpipes skirling, General Parade Chairman Kelly would be leaning forward against a biting March wind and from his perch, all trussed up in top hat and tails; he would review the marchers and the bands. These were his people and a good many of them came for him. Never was a man more proud of his surroundings.
The other moment that sticks in my head when I see that banner is the final scene of Martin Scorsese’s film, Gangs of New York.
In the blockbuster film, nominated for 10 Academy Awards and winner of none, the Irish born Amsterdam Vallon (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) narrates as he looks out toward New York City from a Brooklyn cemetery where in a final visit he symbolically buries his violent past (nearby his conquered nativist nemesis) by covering his dead father’s razor with dirt.
“New York will be rebuilt as if we were never here,” he laments to his ladylove. That pretty well summed it up for someone like me who likes to connect the present to the past.
The scene is clever. With a quick morphing of time past to the present, the gravesites wither and become overgrown with weeds.
That’s how I think of Nutley, its annual parade and one of its noble and enduring business and political leaders: the late, great and honorable John V. Kelly.
The township is somewhat timeless. It’s a well-managed, northern Essex County suburb, an Italian-American enclave of sorts. Annie Oakley is featured in a mural in the local Post Office; Barack Obama locally won over Romney is 2012 while Chris Christie bested his foes, Corzine and Buono (a local girl), in the last two gubernatorial contests.
I’ll assume Trump beat Clinton, but you never know. He had to win somewhere in this banner Democratic county. I’m just too lazy to look it up. The township also celebrates Martha Stewart who famously grew up and went to school there.
So, it’s a nice town. Good schools, premier housing stock and who knows, it probably has a lot of dirty little secrets, too, but whenever I think of it and its annual Irish parade I’m always reminded of John V. Kelly.
Maybe it has something to do with me having a soft spot for Jersey City and the rascals and characters that came from there. Kelly was one of them. He was brash, generous and kind to a fault.
His advice always sounded like an admonishment: “Remember, take care of your family,” he would repeat all the time.
President of Nutley Savings & Loan, Township Commissioner,
Mayor and nine-term member of the General Assembly.
John had a signature tie, navy blue with small gold logos of New Jersey emblazoned on it, which he would gift out gladly, especially in the Assembly chambers. If you admired it, and if he had none with him, he’d strip off the one he was wearing and give it to you. He’d give you the shirt off his back if you wanted that, too.
John had a wonderful life. It was as if he was part of central casting from a Frank Capra movie. He was, by reputation, the George Bailey of his community.
His father was Irish, his mother Italian. His dad had a tryout for the NY Yankees, but he died at an early age and John was left to care for his mother and sister at the age of 12.
He lived over a saloon in Jersey City, went to the local grammar school and on to St. Peter’s Prep.
He served with MacArthur as a staff sergeant in the Philippines during the war, and afterwards worked his way through St. Peter’s College, at night, on the Erie Railroad docks and for the Railway Express in Hoboken.
He got his accounting degree and worked for the Peat, Marwick, and Mitchell firm from 1951 to 1962. Then he made his way to Nutley from Jersey City, took a job with Nutley Savings & Loan and eventually became President and Chairman of the savings bank. But, he liked politics and he was good at it.
First elected to the State Assembly in 1981, he served for 18 years (with a 2 year hiatus) spanning the governorships of Tom Kean, Jim Florio and Christie Whitman.
His campaign for re-election in 1985 (having lost his seat in a Democratic sweep in 1983) is to this day considered one of the great comebacks in New Jersey political lore. He handled his ’83 loss with dignity and grace and he was equally magnanimous with his return victory.
It was important for him to win back that seat (not easily done in two short years) for many reasons chief among them he felt that he let his friends and family down.
Politics, he often said, has a way of breaking your heart.
One of the untold secrets of that ’85 campaign was his profile in courage. He was seriously constrained by a failing back, desperately in need of orthopedic surgery.
His response to the pain was to immerse in salt water baths every morning at a Hackensack hospital so that he could stand, walk and campaign until late at night. Every morning he would get up and do it all over again for more than three months.
As a Republican, he eventually represented parts of Essex, Bergen, and Passaic counties. His original district (the old 30th LD) included towns from Cedar Grove to Belleville along the Bloomfield Avenue corridor. In his day, he could get a nice percentage of the vote from now deep blue Montclair on his way to district wide wins.
John took great pride in writing legislation that he believed would benefit people. He had nearly 150 bills that he authored and were signed into law, which he would proudly assert was simply designed to help people.
On the Appropriations Committee he secured necessary funding for disabled children and autistic research. He created a law, now a national model, requiring newborns to have their hearing tested before they are released from the hospital.
He once told me that after his father died, Jersey City cops and firemen would bring gifts to him and his sister at Christmas time. He never forgot the rough financial times nor those who came to his aid.
John authored the bill that guaranteed the pension and health benefits to all families of deceased cops and firemen. The International Association of Fire Fighters honored him in a special ceremony in The Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.
He was renowned for his management at the bank and for his generosity. He made sure that the mission of his Savings & Loan was home loan mortgages. Countless families came to count on John V. Kelly for their homes and for the education of their children. He never let anyone down.
When I see that banner flying over the township’s main street, I remember John V. Kelly. It makes me smile. He was proud of his Irish heritage and the Irish-American community was proud of him.
He’s gone now, having left us in 2009. But, it’s not like he was never here. Not like Scorsese’s movie. He was a happy man in a boisterous time and he had the uncanny ability to make those around him just as happy as he was.
He was comfortable with himself. He was brilliant and impish. And, the most courageous politician I ever knew.