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“Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have of them.”
― Marcel Proust
John F. Cryan, Essex County’s legendary Irish-born political and community leader, died this day, fourteen years ago. It’s a date I always remember. Better still, one I never forget.
The night of his wake, I stood in the cold night air outside a Maplewood funeral parlor and watched in awe as the steady stream of mourners wrapped the building like a warm Irish shawl. I was mindful of something once written about him:
“In Ireland they say life in the village died when John Cryan departed for his new home in America.”
In that line of quiet sorrow, there were women in black woolen dresses, men in tweed caps and long overcoats. There were governors and journeymen, working people of every stripe. There were small children waiting in line holding tightly to their parents’ hands.
They came by the hundreds from all parts of New Jersey, from New York and Philadelphia. And, of course, with soft murmurs and lilting voices, they had come from Ireland, as well.
It was an endless line of young and old alike, all there to pay respect to the Irish Chieftain, their skilled teller of tales and their keeper of the flame.
It was quiet reverence, almost tribal. A collective and powerful summoning of the clan, all these devoted families and friends, in some mystical way, joined that night to honor one of the stalwart leaders of their community, one of the great Irish American leaders of their time.
What was often told about John Cryan, and more often by him, was that he was a Roscommon man. It was said as a tribute to his birthplace in Baslick, Castlerea, Ireland.
He was a simple and generous man, kind and devoted to his family. Knowing that someone would describe him as such, he would surely be content with that.
When he would phone and leave a message, he would say in his humble way: “Ah, it’s just John Cryan, I’ll try you again.” But, of course, he was bigger than life to all of us.
He was gruff, for sure, but particularly shrewd when he needed to be and gentle when he didn’t have to be.
He was a farmer, a bus driver and a soldier in his youth. And, for most of those who remember, he was a politician, a Sheriff and a restaurateur. He was the famed proprietor of the Beef & Ale, the official ‘unofficial’ headquarters for The Newark St. Patrick’s Day Parade and for his beloved Democratic Party.
His late brother Charlie once recalled what prompted his older brother to leave his native Ireland. “We were at a fair in Frenchpark in October 1947 and John had five cattle there. We were not doing so good as only one cow sold to this man who told us how his own son was doing so well in America.”
After the fair, John said, “well, damn if I’m not going to America.” “He wanted to go, but he also wanted to stay,” his brother recalled: “We both knew he would be fine. He was a hard working man with a big heart.” He certainly knew him well.
John had a cousin, a priest named Father Kirrane, who loved to relate how in his youth, John used to visit the women of Ballymore who would up and faint at the sight of him. “Strong men, who would vie for the ladies, would turn pale if they knew he was coming,“ he laughingly recalled.
During his time in Korea as a 21-year-old Irish-born American infantryman, two brothers from Cork were killed in a firefight directly beside him. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his wounds in battle. But, in fact, he never spoke of it.
He loved his adopted country. He fought for it. But, he never said a word about his military service. Not in his political campaigns or at any other time. That was just his way.
His goal was to provide for the men and women who followed him to these shores, to give them a respite when they landed here.
“Men would sleep on pool tables in the backroom of taverns when they passed through Ellis Island,” he once told me, adding, “My aim was to help them to do better than that.”
For that reason alone, and for all the countless and untold stories of his generosity and care giving, is why men and women sorrowfully turned out to honor their great leader; men and women who openly cried at their loss.
John was all the things written and said about him since his passing: A titanic figure in Essex County politics for more than 40 years, a Newark City Ward leader in the rough and tumble era of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and a State Assemblyman.
He was three times elected Sheriff of Essex County. And, although his days as an elected official ended in 1979, his influence never did.
The passing of John Cryan marked the end of an era and more. It was a monumental loss for the Irish-American and the political community of New Jersey and New York at a time when his extraordinary talents for bringing people together were sorely needed.
He brought grace and poetry to the politics of the day. He spent his whole life caring for his family, for his friends and for the world around him. His mark was indelible.
As his son, Joe, himself a New Jersey State Senator, once so eloquently said: “He would walk into a room and everybody would want to talk to Johnny Cryan.“
Those who came to mourn him that night knew better, in the words of a poet, than to send for whom the bells tolled. The bells tolled for more than John Cryan. It tolled for all of us.
We’ll not see the likes of him, again. He was just that grand.